Public Order Offences - the Range of Offences Explained

In recent years, policing has taken an increasingly target driven approach to crime. More and more people are being criminalised by the justice system for, even if their actions do not physically harm a person or property. The Police and Crown Prosecution Service seem to be more focused on high charging and conviction rates than on dealing with disturbances of the peace in a more balanced manner, and public order offences are by their nature an easy way of doing this.

They can also be a way of government criminalising dissent and legitimate popular protest, as was seen recently in both the G20 and Iraq invasion protests. These allegations are also unusual in that they often criminalise people with no previous convictions.  It can seem particularly unfair in these types of cases that presence at the scene can seem to implicate a person in the acts of a group, and that words or behaviour alone can result in a person being charged.

We are specialists in matters involving public order allegations, particularly involving riot allegations or other allegations of group violence. We have acted in many cases involving street violence and football related breaches of the peace, and have been involved in cases with a political dimension since the 1980s. We successfully represented the leader of the most serious prison riot in UK history, which took place at Strangeways Prison in 1991.

Case study

Any criminal lawyer can claim to have expertise in different types of criminal case. We have included here a case study to give some idea of how we prepare our cases.

Public order offence

Our client was accused under section 4 of the Public Order Act for his alleged involvement in a fight between rival groups of football supporters. CCTV showed him to be at the scene, but cross examination by us of the independent witnesses showed doubt as to whether he was directly involved in any violent behaviour.  Result: not guilty.

Public Order Offences - the different sections explained

The Public Order Act contains most offences involving behaviour which affects order in public places. A brief explanation of each is included below.

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 affect that a normally firm person would be afraid. 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. It can be heard in 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 causing a theoretical person at the scene (who need not actually be there) to be afraid by the behaviour of the people using or threatening violence. Affray involves a minimum of 2 people.

Affray can be heard in the Magistrates and Crown Courts, 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 which is abusive, threatening or insulting. This includes, words, behaviour, and even written signs or other representations.  The maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment. The offence can only be heard in the Magistrates Court.

Section 5 Public Order Act Threatening, Abusive or Insulting Behaviour

This offence involves the use words, behaviour, and even gestures or signs where the defendant is of the opinion that someone may be within hearing. A general defence of the behaviour being reasonable in the circumstances may be available to the defendant. As of January 2014, the government has announced plans to remove the word ‘insulting' from the definition of the offence.

Racially Aggravated Offences

Public order offences are increasingly charged using variations on the original offences which are ‘racially aggravated'.

Public Processions and the Right to Protest Sections 11, 12, 13, 14, 14A and 16 of the Public Order Act

Controversial laws exist regulating the gathering of individuals in large groups in public places. 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'.

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 public order offences solicitor. They include focus on the following areas:


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

Interpretation and Context

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.

Expertise of the Legal Team

Public order offences are unusual in that it is general behaviour and even words which can result in a conviction. And of course, the number of offences and variations in each one means that having lawyers who have a specialisation in this area is an advantage.


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