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Public Order Act - The Different Offences Explained

2 January 2022
Public Order Offences

Public Order Offences - the different sections explained

The Public Order Act contains most offences involving behaviour that affects the order in public places. These allegations are also unusual in that they often criminalise people with no previous convictions, in turn damaging their reputation and affecting their career.  It can seem particularly unfair in these types of cases that presence at the scene can seem to implicate a person for the acts of a group, and that words or behaviour alone can result in a person being charged.

Section 1 Public Order Act Riot

This applies where 12 or more people acting with ‘common purpose' use or threaten violence. Their behaviour must have the effect that a normal member of the public would be afraid. A good example is a prison riot and more recently a number of people were charged with riot in Bristol following a protest that escalated into violence.

Section 1 Riot must be heard in a Crown Court, with a maximum sentence of 10 years, although the maximum sentence is rare.

Section 2 Public Order Act Violent Disorder

This is essentially the same offence as riot, except with only 3 or more people involved.

This is a more common offence and particularly common at football matches where opposing groups may clash. The repercussions are not just a conviction for the public order offence, but can also result in a football banning order preventing the person convicted from attending any football matches for a number of years.

This offence is dealt with by the Crown Court or Magistrates Court. The maximum sentence in the Crown Court is 5 years.

Section 3 Public Order Act Affray

This offence again involves the actions of people using or threatening violence, where a member of the public would be afraid. The most confusing part, is that a member of the public doesn't even have to be there. Affray involves a minimum of 2 people.

An example of affray is where two people could be having an argument and threatening to hit each other. A more serious version of this is where 2 or 3 people may be having a fight outside a pub or club.

Affray can be heard in the Magistrates or Crown Court, and carries a maximum of 3 years imprisonment.

Section 4A Public Order Act Intentional Harassment, Alarm or Distress

The person, to be guilty, must intend to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person and doing so must act in a way that is abusive, threatening or insulting. This includes, words, behaviour, and even written signs or other representations.  

A good example is someone shouting abuse at another intending that they feel insulted.

The maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment. The offence can only be heard in the Magistrates Court.

Section 5 Public Order Act Harassment, Alarm or Distress

This offence involves the use of words, behaviour, and even gestures or signs where the defendant is of the opinion that someone may be within hearing distance. This is different from the offence above as there doesn't need to be any intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress. A general defence of the behaviour being reasonable in the circumstances may be available to the defendant.

An example of this offence could be someone swearing at another. This offence is quite common when people swear at a police officer.

This is an offence that could only be dealt with in the Magistrates Court and generally attracts a fine.

Racially Aggravated Offences

Public order offences are increasingly charged using variations on the original offences which are ‘ racially aggravated' which in turn makes the offence more serious and is what is known as an aggravating factor.

Public Processions and the Right to Protest Sections

Controversial laws exist regulating the gathering of individuals in large groups in public places, particularly so since the Covid outbreak. Some of these have faced criticism in recent years, as they give senior police officers sweeping powers in respect of the planning of peaceful protest. This area of law includes the right of police to impose conditions on processions and assemblies, and even prohibit them, ‘ to prevent serious public disorder'. Anyone who is charged with an offence under this section should obtain free legal advice from a public order offences solicitor.

Strategy in Public Order Offences

No two cases in criminal law are of course the same, but certain aspects of good defence preparation should be present with a properly experienced legal team.

As with any allegation involving violence or threats of violence, where someone is charged with acting in a certain way, the public order offences solicitor must look at whether the evidence supports the prosecution or not. CCTV, contrasting witness statements and what the defendant says must all be looked at very closely, and weak elements in the prosecution case must be attacked.

Of course, whether someone is acting as part of a group, whether they are acting lawfully, for example in self-defence, or whether they are simply at the scene of a disturbance which is not of their making, are all questions which the defence team may look at.

A peaceful protest in which a small number start behaving violently should not result in all being guilty of public order offences. The mere criminalisation of free speech and assembly must be looked at in some detail. It has been known for juries to find defendants not guilty of politically charged allegations in spite of directions to convict from the judge where the prosecution appears to be influenced by a government agenda.

Public order offences are unusual in that it is general behaviour and even words or gestures which can result in a conviction and serious damage to reputation and career prospects. The number of offences and variations in each one means that obtaining free legal advice from specialist public order offence solicitors is a great advantage.

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