Public Order Offences

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The term “public order offence” is used to describe acts of violence or intimidation in public. The phrase serves as a means for the police to keep the peace.

This is one of the more difficult areas of law to prosecute, however, as an act that amounts to a Public Order Act crime is highly likely to take place on a busy street or in other areas of higher footfall.

An example may be that if 20 people are taking part in acts that could be considered a riot, and if an innocent party were to pass through the same area, that party could be wrongly thought to be taking part by the arresting police officer.

If you have been mistakenly accused of a public order offence in this or any other way, it is vital that you seek advice and support from an experienced legal specialist immediately to avoid severe punishment.

What is the Public Order Act of 1986?

This Act of parliament applied to England and Wales and was passed partly as an update to the previous Public Order Act (1936) and partly to introduce new statutory offences, their definitions and their sentencing guidelines.

The Act is laid out in a number of separate sections, which we will explore below:

Section 1 (Riot)

In the Public Order Act 1986, “riot” is defined as an instance where 12 or more individuals, present together, “use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose”.

The conduct of these individuals must be such that it would “cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for [their] personal safety”.

Offences of the riot are triable only on indictment, and potential sentencing extends to a maximum of 10 years of custody. Anywhere between 3 and 9 years imprisonment is also possible.

Additional sections of the Public Order Act exist to help prevent rioting and related public order violations. For example, section 12 permits senior police officers to impose certain conditions on those organising or taking part in a public procession.

If the police officer has reason to believe that the procession in question runs the risk of “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”, including excessive noise, they may give certain directions regarding the procession’s:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Circumstances
  • Route

Section 2 (Violent Disorder)

An incident of “violent disorder” is defined in the Public Order Act 1986 as one where three or more people, present together, use or threaten to use unlawful violence.

In order to qualify as violent disorder, the conduct of the perpetrators must be such that a person of “reasonable firmness” would fear for their safety if they were present at the scene.

Cases of violent disorder are triable either way, which means that they may be heard either in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court depending on their nature and severity.

If the offence involved only threats of violence, or if the violence used was of a low level, perpetrators may be handed a community order.

However, in cases with aggravating factors such as the use of weapons or targeting of particular individuals, offenders may face up to 5 years’ custody.

Section 3 (Affray)

The offence of affray is similar to that of violent disorder – however, it applies to individuals rather than groups. It refers to the use of, or threat of, unlawful violence towards another person.

It is worth noting that the Public Order Act 1986 specifies that “a threat cannot be made by the use of words alone” in cases of this kind.

This is another offence that is triable either way. The minimum sentence for affray is usually fine, while the maximum may be up to 3 years’ custody.

Section 4 (Fear or Provocation of Violence)

Section 4 public order offences are committed when an individual causes another person to believe that they – or someone else – will immediately be a victim of unlawful violence.

This may be through the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, writing or other visible representation.

An offence is not committed if the words are written or spoken inside a dwelling while the alleged “victim” is in the same, or another, dwelling.

Fear or Provocation of Violence is triable only as a summary offence, with the minimum sentence usually being a fine or community order and the maximum being 6 months’ imprisonment.

Section 5 (Harassment, Alarm or Distress)

An offence of this kind is one where the perpetrator uses “threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour… within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.

As in Section 4, this also goes for writing or any other visible representation, and, again, does not apply if the individuals were in a dwelling – or separate dwellings.

Individuals charged with harassment, alarm or distress will face a fine, with the maximum being “level 3” – which, at the time of writing – equates to £1,000.

If it is found that the offence was racially or religiously aggravated, the perpetrator may need to pay up to a “level 4” fine, which is currently £2,500.

What to Do if You’ve Been Accused of a Public Order Offence

If you are worried about being accused of a Public Order Offence, it’s vital that you get in touch with a legal specialist as quickly as possible.

We can attend police interviews with our clients, help them to build a defence and represent them in a court of law.

The experts at DPP Law may help you prove that you were not a member of any group committing an offence such as a riot or violent disorder, or that you had no reason to believe that your words, behaviour or any relevant visible representation would be witnessed by the “victim”.

Alongside this, our solicitors also advise individuals on:

Public Order Offences: Frequently Asked Questions

What is a public order offence?

The Crown Prosecution Service defines a public order offence as an act that involves the use of violence and/or intimidation by individuals or groups.

Is A Public Order Offence a Criminal Conviction?

If you are found guilty in a court of law, you will be considered to have a criminal conviction.

What are some examples of public order offences?

Individuals accused of the following are all likely to be detained under the Public Order Act 1986:

  • rioting
  • affray
  • drunk and disorderly behaviour
  • inciting racial or religious hatred
  • assaulting emergency workers

What is the Maximum Sentence For Public Order Offences?

There are various maximum sentences for the different Public Order Offences.

Drunk and Disorderly

A £1,000 fine is the maximum fine for a drunk and disorderly conviction. 


The maximum penalty for rioting is a 10 years custodial sentence and an unlimited fine. 

Violent Disorder

The maximum penalty for violent disorder is a 5 years custodial sentence and an unlimited fine. 


The maximum affray sentence is a 3 years custodial sentence and an unlimited fine. However, this sentence can be mitigated through the timely entering of a plea, and there are a number of possible defences for an affray charge. 

Threatening Behaviour

The most common public order offence, the maximum sentence for threatening behaviour is a 6 month custodial sentence and a fine. 

Intentional Harassment, Alarm or Distress

The maximum sentence for this crime is a six-month custodial sentence and a fine.

What is the Most Common Form of Public Order Offence?

The most common form of public order offence is threatening behaviour.

What is Section 4 Public Order Offence?

Section 4 of the Public Order act 1986 is applied when there one person has induced fear or provocation of violence upon another. Specifically, a section 4 charge includes threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, and has a maximum custodial penalty of 6 months imprisonment. However, the court can add an additional 18 months if the offence was racially aggravated. 

What Are Section 4a and Section 5 Public Order Offences?

Section 4a and Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 cover harassment, alarm and distress. To be found contrary to these sections, a person: 

  • uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
  • displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

What is Section 6 Public Order Offence?

A Section 6 charge of the Public Order Act 1986 occurs when there is a suspicion that a suspect has taken part in a riot.

What is the sentence for a racially aggravated public order offence?

Aggravating factors such as racial or religious motives will almost always lead to a tougher sentence. 

For offences under section 4 of the Act, the sentence for Fear or Provocation of Violence may be up to two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine on indictment – or six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine on summary conviction.

While a section 5 offence does not come with a custodial sentence, any perpetrator shown to have had racial or religious motives will receive the maximum of a “level 4” fine.

Assistance If You’ve Been Accused of a Public Order Offence

DPP Law can assist you in numerous ways if you are arrested for public order offences.

If you have been wrongly arrested, our solicitors will prepare a strong case against the police and work hard to prove your innocence.

If the prosecution is calling for affray sentencing guidelines to be utilised when you were not part of a group behaving violently, we will present compelling evidence in order to reduce your sentence or see you acquitted.

Whatever your circumstances, contact us today for legal support and representation.

Our criminal defence solicitors can defend you if you have been accused of any of the below criminal offences:

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