After reading an awful lot of opinion and media coverage of the recent disturbances, I’d like to add both my personal opinion and state what the current law is. We are inundated with the word ‘riot’ via the media and via our own personal perceptions.
A ‘riot’ is defined in law via the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 1(1) states:
Where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.
The key phrase in this section is ‘common purpose’. Can we really say that the offenders had a common purpose as per the riots in Northern Ireland for example? No we can’t.
The Act then goes to state in Section 2(1):
Where 3 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using or threatening unlawful violence is guilty of violent disorder.
I think most of you would agree that the ‘violent disorder’ description is a far more accurate description of what has occurred over the last few days.
Why does it matter?
Why does it matter what we call it? Simply because if these disturbances are defined as ‘riots’ in a court of law, victims must sue the police in order to receive compensation as per the Riot (Damages) Act 1886. It would be far better to avoid the riot moniker and put aside a bigger pot than the £20m suggested by David Cameron in the House of Commons this afternoon. This would avoid the victims having to endure a lengthy litigation process.
As for punishment, over 100,000 people have signed an e-petition for the removal of benefits to the offenders. In my opinion, all this would do is perpetuate criminality. Those who are imprisoned should be educated in work-based skills and upon their conditional discharge they would be obliged to complete the rest of their sentence in the form of community service.
A thorough investigation also needs to take place on why it happened in the first place. Prevention is better than a cure.
Now is the time for both the government and the public at large to be sensible, as knee-jerk reactions can often be more detrimental than beneficial.
- Riot Damages Act 1886
Public Order Act 1986