Public order offences are governed by the Public Order Act 1986 and cover a whole host of offences from a riot to the use of threatening or abusive language in public.
The law relating to public order offences can often seem complicated, so it is important to obtain expert legal advice at the earliest stage if you have been accused or arrested of such an offence.
What are Public Order offences?
Public order offences usually involve the use or threat of violence, abuse or harassment towards an individual or a group. A conviction for this type of offence, even where no one has been hurt or property damaged, can result in damage to a person’s reputation or career prospects, a criminal conviction and in more serious cases, a prison sentence.
What are the different types of offences?
Section 1 of the Public Order Act covers a Riot offence. This is where 12 or more people are present together, use of threaten unlawful violence with a ‘common purpose’ and their conduct (or behaviour) would cause a ‘reasonable’ person to fear for their personal safety.
A riot can occur in either a public or a private place. This offence is tried on indictment which means it will always be dealt with in the Crown Court.
If you are found guilty, the Court can impose a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
Section 2 of the Act is Violent disorder. This is the same as a riot but only 3 or more people need to be involved who are using or threatening violence. This means that the offence is much more common, such as at football matches where opposing supporters become involved in an altercation.
Violent disorder can be tried either in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court but it is generally sent to the Crown Court. The maximum sentence in the Crown Court is 5 years custody.
An Affray is covered by Section 3 of the Act and involves the actions of people using or threatening violence where a member of the public would be afraid. This offence can often be quite confusing because the member of the public doesn’t have to actually be there – it can be a hypothetical person but helps the Court decide whether the offence has been committed. Affray involves 2 or more people.
Affray offences can occur where 2 people are having an argument or threatening to fight with each other. Affray can be heard in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court and carries a maximum of 3 years imprisonment.
Section 4 of the Act applies where there is a fear or provocation of violence. The offence involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, such that another person either feared violence or it provoked them to use violence. It is a summary only offence which means it is dealt with in the Magistrates Court. The maximum sentence is 6 months BUT if the offence is racially aggravated then the case can be sent to the Crown Court and the maximum sentence is 2 years imprisonment.
Section 4A of the Act involves the intentional causing of harassment, alarm or distress. This means that the offender must intend to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person and must act in a way that is abusive, threatening or insulting. It can be committed using words or behaviour. An example of this is shouting abuse towards another person intending that they feel insulted.
This offence is dealt with the in the Magistrates Court, with a maximum of 6 months custody and, as with Section 4 offences, if the offence is racially aggravated the Crown Court can impose a 2 year sentence.
Section 5 of the Act is covers the use of words, behaviour, gestures of signs where the defendant is aware that someone may be within hearing distance. This offence is very different from Section 4 and 4A because there doesn’t need to be any intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress. There is a defence that the behaviour was reasonable in the circumstances.
This offence is committed very regularly, even by swearing in the street. It can only be dealt with the Magistrates Court and the maximum sentence is a fine.
What is a racially aggravated offence?
An offence is racially aggravated if:
- At the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim’s membership or presumed membership of a racial or religious group; or
- The offence is motivated wholly or partly by hostility towards members of a racial or religious group based on their membership of that group.
This means that if the defendant makes a racial remark or reference to a person’s religion, then the offence is racially aggravated. These offences are treated more seriously by the Courts.
The law on public order offences can seem quite confusing. At Churchers, our criminal defence team has a wealth of experience in providing legal advice and representation for these types of offences. It is important to call us if you have been accused of an offence so that we can provide advice at the earliest stage.