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What are public order offences?

Public order offences are intended to punish crimes involving violence and/or intimidation by individuals or groups. The purpose of public order offences is to balance an individual’s right to free speech and right to assembly with the rights of others to go about their daily lives unhindered. Public order offences are contained in Part 1 of the Public Order Act 1986 (the Act). The Act contains the public order offence of riot. In order for the offence of riot to be found, 12 or more people together must have used or threatened unlawful violence for a common purpose. In addition, their conduct must have caused a person of reasonable firmness, who was present at the scene, to fear for their personal safety. Riot is punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. It is used for organised or spontaneous large-scale acts of violence against people or property where severe fear and disruption is caused to the public.

The Act also contains the offence of affray. This offence occurs when a person has used or threatened unlawful violence towards another and their conduct caused a person who was present at the scene and is of reasonable firmness to fear for their personal safety. It is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Drunk and disorderly behaviour under section 91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 is also a public order offence. This offence occurs when a person uses threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, towards another person in a public place. These words or behaviour must be intended to cause and in fact cause harassment, alarm or distress.

Public order offences usually are charged in conjunction with other crimes such as assault, unlawful possession of a weapon and the causing of criminal damage.

Religiously aggravated public order offences are public offences which have been motivated by racial or religious hatred. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 came into force in October 2007, and it amends the Act by creating new offences of stirring up hatred against persons on religious grounds. The words or behaviour used to stir up hatred must be intended for that purpose. Religious hatred is defined as hatred towards a group defined by a religious belief, or a group defined by their lack of a religious belief.

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