Back in March I’d written a blog post all about the intricacies of what constitutes a ‘public order’ offence. This was published against the background of the March for the Alternative demonstrations during which several protesters were arrested under various sections the Public Order Act.
The point of the post was to explain a little what these offences were as whilst the media were happy to report people having been locked up for public order offences, there didn’t seem to be much clarification for non-legal bods about what the term might mean.
If you read the post at the time or have just pulled it up to have a scan now, you may have noticed that I covered Sections 5, 4A, 4, 3 and 2.
Where, you might ask, was Section 1? And what is Section 1?
Section 1 refers to a highly topical offence taking into account the recent disturbances in London. Section 1 of the Public Order Act is riot.
How does the law define a riot though?
According to the Act, riot is very close to violent disorder (Section 2 of the Act) in terms of how it is described. To quickly recap ‘violent disorder’, it is where three or more people act in a way that causes another person to fear for their own personal safety. Their actions have to be more than words and can be directed against another person or against property.
Very simply put, riot is the same as violent disorder but rather than involving a minimum of three people, involves a minimum of twelve.
These twelve people have to be using or threatening violence for a ‘common purpose’ and do not have to all be doing so simultaneously so if eleven people are smashing up a bus stop and the twelfth is with them but taking a break to drink a nice cup of tea, there is still a riot.
Today’s offence of rioting replaces the older offence given in the Riot Act 1741 under which miscreants could be prosecuted if twelve of them had gathered and not dispersed within an hour of the Riot Act itself having been read out to them. This is where the term ‘reading the Riot Act’ comes from.
Whilst The Riot Act itself has since been replaced, another similarly elderly law relating to today’s offence of ‘rioting’ still sits on the statute books and is applicable today. This is known as the Riot (Damages) Act 1886.
The implication of this Act is that should a riot occur, the police may be required to pay compensation for the damage.
This has happened recently to Bedfordshire Police Authority after an immigration detention centre was destroyed by a fire started by ‘persons riotously and tumultuously assembled together’ and its owners sued accordingly.
The £42 million cost for repairs to the centre is one of the reasons that in legal terms, ‘riots’ are very, very rare. A large scale disorder will be classified as many separate incidents of criminal damage, violent disorder, affray or assaults rather than as a riot with the argument sensibly being made that there is no ‘common purpose’ amongst those gathered.
Call them as you will, however, the ‘Tottenham riots’ and ongoing issues in London are still totally unacceptable and I think it’s fair to say there’s a great deal of sympathy up here in the West Midlands for those countless Met officers who will have been working long, stressful shifts restoring the peace and reassuring the local communities in the areas affected.
The BBC are continuing their coverage as events unfold and the Met too are providing regular updates through their News & Appeals page. Finally, for an insider’s view of the riots and what it’s been like to police them, I’d recommend you take a look at Inspector Winter’s excellent blog on the events which is available here.