New guidelines proposed for sentencing people convicted of public order offences

Today, the Sentencing Council has published proposed new guidelines covering public order offences sentenced in England and Wales. In simple terms, these offences involve the use of or threat of violence by individuals or groups of people towards others usually in a public place. They span a wide range of offending from low-level disorderly behaviour, which comprise some of the highest volume offences seen by courts, to larger scale disorder such as football violence and up to major riots.

Public order is essential for the safe functioning of society, and the law seeks to protect the public from behaviour which undermines this. The proposed guidelines aim to ensure consistent and proportionate sentencing within the existing legislation to promote this aim, setting out essential factors courts should take into account, such as the damage caused to local communities and injuries suffered by emergency workers and police dogs and horses.

The guidelines cover offences within the Public Order Act 1986:

  • Riot
  • Violent disorder
  • Affray
  • Threatening or provocation of violence and the racially or religiously aggravated counterpart offences
  • Disorderly behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress and the racially or religiously aggravated counterpart offences
  • Disorderly behaviour causing or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress and the racially or religiously aggravated counterpart offences
  • Offences relating to stirring up racial or religious hatred and hatred based on sexual orientation

These offences can vary greatly in their nature and in their seriousness. For example, affray, which covers the use or threats of violence which would make someone fear for their personal safety, may involve serious or sustained violence or a less serious incident where no one is injured.

The guidelines aim to set out a clear approach to sentencing that covers the main factors that should be taken into account in assessing the culpability of the offender and the harm they caused. For example, an offender with high culpability in the riot guideline may have used petrol bombs or firearms, been a ringleader in instigating violence or have been instrumental in escalating the level of disorder.

The guidelines also aim to encapsulate the wide-ranging harm that is caused by these offences. Individual members of the public may suffer physical injury, fear or distress, or damage to their property while business owners may suffer loss of livelihood and damage to their premises. Public disorder can inflict serious disruption and damage to local communities and police officers and other emergency workers may be attacked and injured. Incidents may also involve substantial costs to the public purse.

The guidelines also highlight other aggravating factors that would increase the seriousness of offences. This can include offenders inciting others to participate in violence, trying to prevent emergency services from carrying out their duties, causing injuries to police dogs or horses and using or possessing weapons.

The guidelines also take into account trends in criminality and a social climate which has seen a rise in hate crime offending. The Council considered that a guideline on public order would be incomplete if it did not cover racially or religiously aggravated public order offences and those which specifically address stirring up of racial or religious hatred or hatred based on sexual orientation.

Sentencing Council member Her Honour Judge Sarah Munro said: “Our courts need to help ensure the protection of the public from these violent offences. The guidelines we are proposing will ensure that courts have comprehensive guidance for dealing with the great range of offending from large-scale riots to low-level disorder.”

The consultation is seeking views on various areas of the draft guideline, including culpability and harm factors and the proposed sentence levels. It will run from 9 May to 8 August and can be accessed on the Council’s website. Following the consultation, a definitive guideline will be drawn up.