Riot and Violent Disorder

The Public Order Act 1986

The Public Order Act 1986 abolished the common law offences of riot, rout, unlawful assembly & affray and created new public order offences. It also replaced offences under the Public Order Act of 1936. The 1986 act was passed amid the tumult of industrial unrest and social disorder in the inner cities which characterised the early 1980s. It was an attempt to clarify the law of public disorder. The act is not concerned with a victim, but of the impact on a hypothetical bystander who would fear for their safety if they were/had been present at the scene. So, where the offence of common assault, for example, requires a victim, offences under the Public Order Act do not require any victim to give evidence in court.

“Violence” under the POA86 has a deliberately wider definition than offences of violence in other parts of the criminal law. Under this act, “violence” includes violent conduct towards property as well as towards people (except for the section 3 offence of “Affray”). It is also not restricted to conduct causing or intended to cause injury or damage, but includes any other violent conduct (e.g. throwing a missile at or towards someone which falls short/misses).

Section 1 – Riot.

Historically, serious riots were prosecuted as high treason. These days the offence of riot is reserved for exceptionally severe cases – the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions (the DPP) is required before any prosecution can begin. A defendant can be tried on indictment only – the case can only be tried in the Crown Court by a judge and jury.

When “the normal forces of law and order have broken down; due to the intensity of the attacks on police and other civilian authorities, normal access by emergency services is impeded by mob activity; due to the scale and ferocity of the disorder, severe disruption and fear is caused to members of the public; violence carries with it the potential for a significant impact upon a significant number of non-participants for a significant length of time; organised or spontaneous large scale acts of violence on people and/or property” the situation can be classed as a riot.

The “essential elements” of this charge are:
– where 12 or more persons…
– who are present together…
– use or threaten unlawful violence…
– for a common purpose…
– and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety…
– each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.

– may occur in a public or private place
– the unlawful violence (or threat of it) need not be done simultaneously
– it includes conduct towards property as well as towards people
– the conduct need not cause of be intended to cause injury or damage
– one of the 12+ must have actually used unlawful violence
– there must be an intention to use violence or an awareness that the conduct may be violent
– no “person of reasonable firmness” need actually be at the scene – they can be purely hypothetical
– if found guilty of riot, you can receive a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Being charged with riot is usually quite rare, although some people arrested in the riots of summer 2011 were charged with riot. It is normally more likely to secure a conviction for such an incident if the accused person is taken to a magistrate’s court instead of put in front of a jury, even though the sentence if found guilty may be lower. Another reason which may account for the lower number of people charged with riot may be that the police have to pay out compensation to victims of riot and not to those who are victims of violent disorder and so on.

Section 2 – Violent Disorder.

If there are fewer than 12 people present, but more than 3 and all the other “essential elements” (and relevant notes) from the offence of “Riot” are present (with the exception of “common purpose”) then the offence would be Violent Disorder. This is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 5 years on conviction.