After London played host to as many as five hundred thousand peaceful protesters and a handful of violent-minded thugs on March 26th, there have been various reports that the Met Police have made a number of arrests for ‘public order’ offences. Both the BBC and Guardian have carried stories referencing these mysterious crimes and after asking a few non-police friends what they thought a public order offence might be, I have realised that the Public Order Act is perhaps not one of the better known statutes we have on the books. In this post I’ll attempt to clarify in as few words as possible, what exactly is a ‘public order’ offence?
To help with my explanation I’m going to recruit the help of ‘Billy’, a rather unpleasant young man under the influence of one too man pints of shandy who is currently sauntering his way through a busy town center near you. Billy’s about to commit a whole range of public order offences, here’s how he’s going to do it -
- To get himself started he yells at no one in particular an expletive much worse than “Screw!”. Billy has now committed a Section 5 Public Order offence.
- Not content with this, Billy picks out an unfortunate member of the public and screams at her “Screw you!”. As his expletives are intentionally directed at someone, Billy has now committed a Section 4A Public Order Offence.
- Billy’s only just getting started though. Picking up courage he now shouts “Screw you, I’ll punch your lights out!”. Having added a threat of violence, Billy has moved another notch up the ladder to a Section 4 Public Order offence.
- Any reasonable criminal – if such a thing exists – would have had his fill now but sadly not Billy. He screams again “Screw you, I’ll punch your lights out!” but this time raises his fists at the now very alarmed and distressed member of the public. Having taken his actions beyond words alone, Billy has now committed a Section 3 Public Order offence. This is also known as an affray.
- As a final insult, Billy recruits two friends and all begin yelling at Billy’s chosen target, threatening violence and brandishing their clenched fists as they do so. As there are now three people present Billy and his friends are all guilty of an offence against Section 2 of the Public Order Act – violent disorder.
Public order offences are well summed up by the Act itself which refers to a public order offence as an act employing threatening, abuse or insulting words, behaviour or displaying writing of such a nature that is likely to be seen or heard by anyone and to cause them to suffer harassment, alarm or distress. These offences can occur anywhere with the exception of S. 5 through to S. 4 which can’t be committed if both offender and victim are inside a dwelling.
Due to their scope, public order offences can be incredibly useful in dealing with a wide variety of anti-social behaviour issues encountered not only on demonstrations but in the streets and in town centers on busy nights. It is owing to their flexibility that I imagine the police in London have opted to make many of their arrests under the Public Order Act and they often stand a good chance of successful convictions in court.
Hopefully this condensed summary of public order has lent a little clarity to the topic. There are all sorts of clauses and fine details contained in the Act not mentioned here for fear of muddying the waters but are available to read in the legislation if you’re sufficiently curious. On a final note, for anyone wondering what happened to Billy and his mates, I am confident that they are now sitting in the cells thoroughly regretting their actions and hoping that the judge won’t be too harsh on them in court.
As ever feedback is appreciated and the first person to post as a reply the correct name of the artist and song from this blog’s title will receive an approving nod from myself.