What is the Public Order Act 1986?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 March 2020
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The Public Order Act 1986 is an Act of Parliament passed in the United Kingdom in 1986. The Act defined a number of offenses related to public order and safety while replacing the outdated Public Order Act 1936 as well as some definitions in common law. The goal of the act was to clearly define such offenses so that police officers and other members of the law enforcement community could take steps to protect public order and to address violence.

Offenses described under the Public Order Act 1986 include: “affray,” described as violence or the threat of violence which frightens other people in the area; rioting; “fear or provocation of violence”; “violent disorder”; and “harassment, alarm, or distress,” intentional or otherwise. This last category includes the use of words, physical violence, images, and other tactics to frighten or upset people.

Other areas in the Public Order Act 1986 included a section specifically addressing racial hatred. Racial tensions in Britain were a growing problem in the 1980s, and this area of the law was designed to specifically identify criminal behavior in the context of racial hatred, including inciting racial hatred or acting in a way which would likely lead to racial hatred. By criminalizing such behavior, the government could take steps to combat it and could begin keeping more accurate statistics on racial hatred in British society.


The Public Order Act 1986 also covers assemblies and processions, mandating that police be notified before such events and allowing police to limit such assemblies for safety reasons. The act is structured in a way which is designed to avoid infringing upon the right to peaceful assembly and free association, without utterly limiting police powers. Some critics of the Public Order Act 1986 have argued that there have been instances in which these powers have been abused by overzealous law enforcement and in which legal assemblies have been suppressed.

Eight years later, the Public Order Act 1994 was introduced to change some of the language of the 1986 version and to expand some of the definitions. This Act expanded police powers considerably when it came to search and seizure, defined “anti-social behaviors” which could be punished by law, and expanded discussions of trespass and sexual assault. Some critics felt that this act could be viewed as discriminatory since some of the language specifically targeted alternative communities, such as hunt saboteurs and young adults involved in Britain's rave culture.


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Post 6

@JaneAir - I agree, laws like this do protect people. However, I think it's important for them to be really, really specific about what constitutes unlawful activity. For example, if I leave my house with my hair in rollers and my pajamas on, and someone is disturbed by the site of me, am I creating a ruckus or engaging in anti-social behavior?

Also, I think it's interesting part of the reason they made activities of racial hatred illegal is to aid them in keeping statistics about it. This makes a lot of sense though. Instead of hiring more people to do research, they can simply use the arrest records to compile statistics on race crime.

Post 5

@burcinc - It's illegal for 20 or more people to listen to music together at night in the UK? Wouldn't that make a lot of normal things unlawful? Like having a party at your own home or running a bar?

That sounds a little ridiculous, but I agree with more of the other parts of this law. Freedom of speech is very important, but not so important people should be allowed to create a breach of the peace! People just can't go rampaging around rioting and harassing other people just because we have freedom of speech.

Post 4

I understand why the UK government would want to increase search and seizure powers in the new version of the Public Order Act, with the looming threat of terrorism and various illegal groups and activities. The US has also expanded these powers after 9-11 as part of the homeland security initiatives.

I actually understand some of the anti-Rave laws as well, because I've heard that illegal drugs and activities are often a part of Rave parties in the UK and elsewhere. But I wish the Act had specified which type of gatherings were unlawful, instead of just saying '20 or more people listening to music at night,' which is now considered to be an unlawful anti-social behavior in the UK!

This kind of vagueness and generalization in the law will just anger a lot of youngsters I think.

Post 3

@burcidi-- There are various levels of threat mentioned in the Public Order Act of 1986 and I think it can be confusing without understand the terminology.

As far as I know, affray is when there is an unlawful threatening action that causes someone fear. It's not enough to verbally threaten, there has to be an intention of doing something.

So in your example, it would be considered affray if the protesters took out gas and a matchstick outside of that building. Because this shows that they have the intention to harm. I don't think it is affray if they simply threaten verbally without taking any physical action.

For example, battery crimes would definitely be considered affray because there is the intention to harm and an unlawful act of physical contact, whether or not it ends with injury.

Post 2

I think I understand all areas of this Act except for affray. Can you explain a bit more about affray and what it means?

If it means 'violence or threat of violence which frightens people,' how do law enforcement determine whether people have been frightened or not? Is it just based on observation?

And if people are not frightened, is it not considered affray?

If there was a situation where some protesters demanded something and threatened to burn down a building if they weren't listened to, could they be arrested for affray?

It sounds to me as if the Public Order Act's rules on affray would largely depend on law enforcement's comprehension and judgment. Is that right?

Post 1

With four wives and the infantile idea of quantity over quality, then that fact isn't surprising!

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