Posts Tagged 'Public Order Act 1986'

Words they meant nothing, so you can’t hurt me…

Should you be convicted for calling a police horse gay? Many think not and the law is a-changing accordingly (Image from Arriva436)

Hello there, stupid. Concord called – it would like its nose back please.

Feeling a little insulted? Perhaps and if you are, allow me to apologise – I am usually an exceptionally polite officer.

Were I not to be so polite though, should I be thrown in the gaol for causing insult? Should it say as much in the law and if it did, should we officers be running around arresting people who speak ahead of thinking?

Many people think not, notably the Reform Section 5 campaign who have been arguing that the inclusion of the word ‘insulting’ in the definition of a Section 5 Public Order Offence isn’t in the spirit of free speech.

Recently joining the voices of those who don’t think that the law should be dealing with insults is the Home Secretary, Teresa May, and as voices go, hers is one that tends to indicate that things are going to change.

This week she announced that she wouldn’t be challenging an amendment made to the Crime and Courts Bill that would see the word ‘insulting’ scrapped from the definition and so dropped out of the law.

I’ve looked at Public Order Offences on this blog before, working through Sections 5 to 1 and explaining a little about how the offences get more severe as you progress towards riot – Section 1 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

Section 5 currently makes it a crime to use ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ with the intention of causing ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

It’s this law that was used to arrest a student who asked a mounted officer if his horse was ‘gay’ and one that hasn’t always sat well with those protective of free speech, causing concern that the ability to arrest someone for causing insult is a restriction on freedom of expression.

As a rozzer, I don’t see that dropping the word from the definition hurts our ability to deal with people who need to be dealt with and I think indicates what the Government and public would prefer that we concentrate on – not arresting people for causing insult but rather helping people who have fallen victim to serious crimes and need our help.

We retain the capability to tackle threats and abuse hurled at people (including ourselves), we appear to lose only an ability to arrest over allegations of insult in which it’s not really appropriate we be involved in the first place.

Words we never say…

John Terry has been found not guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – does this verdict clear him though?

So it’s official, following a week of intense legal wrangling Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle has reached the conclusion that whilst John Terry’s language towards Anton Ferdinand was unpleasant, it wasn’t racist.

As far as legal action goes, Terry is in the clear.

Terry’s defence wasn’t that he hadn’t uttered racist words – indeed that he hadn’t traded several insults with Ferdinand – but that he was merely repeating to Ferdinand the contents of an accusation that he thought had been leveled at him.

Lip readers have not been able to prove contrary to Terry’s account, no one else on the pitch appeared to have overheard the exchange and Terry was assessed as a credible witness.

The court had to prove ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ that Terry was guilty, this standard wasn’t felt to have been met and so the only option was to release Terry without charge.

This is likely the end of the criminal justice system’s involvement in the matter.

What remains to be seen is how The FA deal with Terry, how their course of action bares on their own Respect Campaign and the attitude of fans themselves.

First of all, from past experience when West Midlands Police officers comment on footballer’s conduct some fiery responses have been provoked from fans and senior football figures alike. Superintendent Payne’s blog on Wayne Rooney raised a response from Alex Ferguson himself and made the national news.

With this in mind, I’ll preface my thoughts with the disclaimer that they’re my opinion only and I don’t speak with any particular knowledge of the footballing world. I’d consider myself reasonably impartial – whilst I take an interest in law and order I don’t have a great deal to do with football and so looking at some things that happen in the ‘beautiful game’ through a policeman’s eye, I am weary that I run the risk of misunderstanding their context.

Having followed the trial up to its conclusion, I’m of the opinion that even if Terry’s behaviour was not proven to have been racist, it’s certainly was not in any way appropriate either on or off the pitch.

Professional footballers are the closest things to role models that many youngsters are likely to get. They’re worshiped, idolised and their images invade the consciousness of youth around the world.

With such a powerful status there’s an equally demanding responsibility to live up to their positions – to take heed of the respect that they find invested in themselves.

Verbal tirades against each other on live television do nothing to reassure me that certain footballers are interested in reflecting their profession in a positive light.

It’s all very well wearing the Respect Campaign logo on their sleeves but without action to back up their commitment, it all seems a bit pointless.

This stretches beyond the players. Standing between the opposing fans at Villa Park whilst attached to the Football Unit earlier this year, the one thing that struck me was the level of abuse traded between the two sets of fans.

Some paid no attention at all to the game and I watched two parents spend the whole of the ninety minutes screaming abuse at the rival fans, apparently oblivious to their ten year old son who was sandwiched between them.

Of course I’d hate to imply this impression is representative of all footballers or fans – I’ve no reason to think it is and know that the vast majority of those who pay to watch football, or who are paid slightly more to play it, do so out of a love for the game.

The impression I get from examples such as those seen at the ground and Terry’s well documented case is that it seems hard to describe football as ‘beautiful’ – it has an ugly side that The FA would do well to address.

I can’t see that this is a new issue – I think we see much less violence on the terraces than we did, say, back in the eighties and too can see that football is a passionate game.

In the heat of the moment words will always be exchanged that may raise a few eyebrows in the Post Office – a line is crossed though when these words are sufficient to land a player in a criminal court.

Likewise with racist or sexist chanting, a line too is crossed from banter to criminality and this not only spoils the game but damages the good reputation that football deserves.

Terry was charged under S. 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 accused of using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’.

I’m keen to see how The FA interpret S. 3(1) of their own rules, nearly identical in that it seeks to prohibit the use of ‘threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour’.

Terry is in the clear as far as criminal law goes, in terms of the ethics of the game though I think that Terry and others have a lot to answer for.

With a change in attitudes there’s no reason that football can’t be beautiful again – the John Terry case suggests a change of attitudes is sorely needed.

P.S. You can read more about how the police and Crown Prosecution Service arrived at the decision to charge Terry by checking out my blog from last year on that very subject. You can also find out more about the Public Order Act on another of my blogs from last March.

You can read the full text of the ruling here (be advised – choice language alert!) and to find out more about racism in sport, have a look at Kick It Out, Show Racism The Red Card and the FARE Network.

These are my twisted words…

CPS have charged Terry with a Public Order offence but how have they reached this decision?

There’s been lots of talk in the news recently about someone called John Terry being charged by the Met for something he’s alleged to have said to a guy called Anton Ferdinand.

I may as well start off my admitting that when it comes to football itself, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. If you’re reading this post hoping for some insight about how the charge will affect Chelsea’s hopes of winning the Football Cup, you may be disappointed.

What I do know you a little about though is what the reports of the CPS looking at Terry’s ‘file’ and making a charging decision mean. In this shortish post I aim to explain a little about the process through which the Met will have gone to put Terry in front of the Magistrates.

Terry had been accused of using racist language towards Ferdinand during a Premier League game at the end of October this year. A member of the public had overheard him using what was perceived to be unacceptable words and had made a complaint to the Metropolitan Police. The suspicion was that the words used may amount of a Public Order offence.

The Met had looked into the allegation, no doubt referring to Loftus Road Stadium‘s truly exceptional CCTV system, and on the basis of the evidence officers conducted a voluntary interview about the matter at Terry’s home.

Having completed their investigation – gathered all of the available evidence and obtained an account from Terry himself under caution – officers then had to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision.

Who is able to make a decision to charge a suspect with an offence – that is to say that it is appropriate to send someone to court to answer an allegation – depends on the type of offence.

For fairly straightforward cases involving relatively low level crimes – thefts, criminal damage and the like – the police can usually make the decision independently as to whether there is sufficient evidence and that it is in the public interest to send a person to court.

More complicated/serious matters or those with a domestic, racial or hate element require the CPS to review the evidence before authorising the police to charge.

Because the allegation made against Terry was that he had used racial abuse, the matter had to be submitted for the attention of CPS.

When reports were made of a file being handed to CPS, this would have meant copies of the statements collected during the investigation and possibly any visually recorded evidence such as that collected by television cameras and pitch-side microphones, had been sent for CPS to look at.

Having this evidence in their possession, CPS then need to consider The Code and decide firstly whether there is sufficient evidence to allow a realistic prospect of conviction and secondly, is it in the public interest to put the matter before the courts – the combination of these considerations being referred to as the ‘Full Code Test‘.

Once the strengths and the weaknesses of the case have been assessed, CPS will then advise the police if they think the suspect should be charged or not.

In Terry’s case CPS have made the decision that he should be charged with a racially aggravated S. 5 Public Order offence and so he will now be summonsed – told he has to appear at court – where the matter will go to trial and he will be asked to enter a plea.

The use of racially abusive language – on or off the pitch – is clearly unacceptable and if Terry is found guilty the fact that the offence is racially aggravated will inform the sentence passed. The case has been provisionally scheduled for February 1st and I’ll be very interested to see how both the courts and The FA deal with the allegation.

Watching the people get lairy, it’s not very pretty I tell thee…

Riot police move in to tackle protesters (Image from BBC/PA)

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.

Hail, Hail, Spit n’ Drool…

Spitting like this could see an offender sent to prison, even if he is wearing a funny hat.

Today’s post is related to the great news publicised by West Midlands Police that officers from the Safer Travel Partnership had successfully helped convict a woman for an assault relating to her spitting at a bus driver. The woman, from Stechford, was handed an eight week custodial sentence by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court for both this offence and another theft related matter for which she was charged.

How exactly does this work though? The woman probably has not physically struck the poor bus driver but has still been found guilty of ‘assault’. Isn’t assault just that – actually striking a person?

English law splits assaults into various categories.

At the most serious we have an offence that goes beyond assault and strays closer towards murder – the crime of attempted murder. This is the charge we’d likely look at if an assault has been so severe that it’s only just fallen short of actually killing a person.

After attempted murder, we move to grievous bodily harm with intent. This offence stems from the long standing ‘Offences Against the Person Act‘ of 1861 and involves a person doing serious injury to a person and it being evident that they meant to do such injury. It is defined by S. 18 of the Act.

S. 20 of the same Act refers to grievous bodily harm but drops the reference to ‘intent’. Serious injury has still been done but the offender’s aim was not specifically to cause such an injury.

Still referring to the same Act, S. 47 gives us a further category of assault – that where actual bodily harm is caused but the associated injury is not as serious. Bruising, cuts and grazes may fall under the remit of a S. 47 assault.

The final category of assault comes from S. 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. This is the level of assault for which the spitting woman will have been found guilty and does not require that physical contact even be made. The requirements are outlined in case law rather than the Act itself, the definition accepted as being where a person ‘intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force’.

The act of spitting at another person can be classified as an assault under this definition as can any other action that fulfills the criteria – from aggressively yelling at someone in the street to jumping out at someone from a cupboard whilst dressed as a ghost.

Whilst spitting at someone falls foul of the law in terms of an assault, spitting in general could be seen as a crime under the terms of the Public Order Act. I discussed recently in our Tweet & Greet whether spitting should be made a crime as some have called for in the media. My answer was that spitting could be considered ‘threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’. As such we could use a Public Order offence to deal with the culprit if circumstances necessitated.

Spitting at a bus driver, as at anyone else, is clearly unacceptable behaviour and the law gives us scope to deal with offenders and even send them to prison for doing it. I’d be happy to arrest someone for spitting if there was sufficient justification for making said arrest and I’m sure other officers would feel the same.

It’s not something that we’re prepared to tolerate and as the woman from Stechford has now found out, is an offence which could see the perpetrator detained at her majesty’s pleasure for an extended period having been found guilty of assault.


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