The Public Order Act 1986 (c 64) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It creates a number of public order offences. They replace similar common law offences and parts of the Public Order Act 1936. It implements recommendations of the Law Commission.
Part 1 - New offences
- Section 1 - Riot
- Section 2 - Violent disorder
- Section 3 - Affray
- Section 4 - Fear or provocation of violence
- Section 4A - Intentional harassment, alarm or distress
- added by section 154 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
- Section 5 - Harassment, alarm or distress
Section 8 - Interpretation
This section defines the words "dwelling" and "violence".
Section 9 - Offences abolished
Section 9(1) abolished the common law offences of riot, rout, unlawful assembly and affray.
Section 9(2) abolished the offences under:
Part 2 - Processions and assemblies
- Section 11 - Advance notice of public processions
- requires at least 6 clear days' written notice to be given to the police before most public processions, including details of the intended time and route, and giving the name and address of at least one person proposing to organise it; creates offences for the organisers of a procession if they do not give sufficient notice, or if the procession diverges from the notified time or route
- Section 12 - Imposing conditions on public processions
- provides police the power to impose conditions on processions "to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community"
- Section 13 - Prohibiting public processions
- Chief Police Officer has the power to ban public processions up to three months by applying to local authority for a banning order which needs subsequent confirmation from the Home Secretary.
- Section 14 - Imposing conditions on public assemblies
- provides police the power to impose conditions on assemblies "to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community". The conditions are limited to the specifying of:
- the number of people who may take part,
- the location of the assembly, and
- its maximum duration.
- Section 14A -Prohibiting trespassory assemblies
- added by section 70 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to control "raves"
- Section 16 - Public Assembly
- Means an assembly of 20 or more persons in a public place which is wholly or partly open to the air.
Parts 3 and 3A - Racial and religious hatred
If the act is intended to stir up racial hatredPart 3 of the Act creates offences of
- use of words or behaviour or display of written material (section 18),
- publishing or distributing written material (section 19),
- public performance of a play (section 20),
- distributing, showing or playing a recording (section 21),
- broadcasting (section 22). or
- possession of racially inflammatory material (section 23)
Acts intended to stir up religious hatred are proscribed in POA Part 3A by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 (RRHA) with the insertion of new sections 29A to 29N. The RRHA bill, which was introduced by Home Secretary David Blunkett, was amended several times in the House of Lords and ultimately the Blair government was forced to accept the substitute words.
To stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation was to be proscribed by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 in POA Part 3A section 29AB. This legislation was introduced by David Hanson MP.
The Act and Article 11 of ECHR
The Act should be considered in connection with Article 11 of European Convention on Human Rights, which grants people the rights of (peaceful) assembly and freedom of association with others.
Misuse of section 14
The Police have been accused of misusing the powers in section 14 on several occasions. During the 2009 G-20 London summit protests journalists were forced to leave the protests by police who threatened them with arrest.
The campaign to reform section 5
The 'Reform Section 5' campaign was established in May 2012 to garner support for an alteration of section 5, and led to an increase in the threshold from "abusive or insulting" to "abusive" (words, etc.). The campaign was supported by a range of groups and famous individuals. These included the National Secular Society, the Christian Institute, the Bow Group and The Freedom Association. Actors Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry also voiced their support.
The Government has now announced that it is “not minded” to challenge a Lords amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill which would remove the word “insulting” from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Section 5 makes it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” or to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting” within the hearing or sight of a person “likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.
Section 5 has been used to arrest and/or prosecute (for example) religious campaigners against homosexuality, a British National Party member who displayed anti-Islamic posters in his window and people who have sworn at the police. Police charged a teenage anti-Scientology protestor, although the charges were later dropped, as they were in a well publicised case of a student arrested for calling a police horse “gay”. Hotel owners were charged (although later acquitted) following a religious discussion with a Muslim guest. The Human Rights organisations Liberty and Justice and the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) have argued for some time against the current wording. In a response, the previous government said in 2009 that removing the word insulting would leave courts to decide whether particular words or behaviour were “(criminally) abusive or merely (non-criminally) insulting”. It proposed instead to deal with the issue through guidance.
The “Reform Section 5” campaign, supported by groups as diverse as the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute, has commissioned polling of MPs. The most recent poll, based on responses from 154 MPs, suggested that a majority of Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members backed reform.
There have been several attempts to amend section 5. In October 2011, the Government published the consultation document on the issue, but it has yet to publish a response. At the Lords report stage of the Crime and Courts Bill [HL] the Government resisted an amendment to remove the word “insulting”, but this was agreed to on division. However, in the Commons second reading debate the Home Secretary said that whilst the Government support the retention of section 5 as currently worded, it is “not minded” to challenge the amendment in the light of assurances from the Director of Public Prosecutions.