The Act was the ultimate outcome of a series of events dating back to the 1970s. The Red Lion Square demonstration against the National Front in 1974 and Lord Scarman's subsequent inquiry (Cmnd 5919, 1975). In 1981 there was rioting in Brixton and Lord Scarman was asked to do a further report (Cmnd 8427, 1981). Industrial disputes raised further issues - especially the miner' strike of 1984/5. In 1983, the Law Commission reviewed public order offences and proposed significant amendments - ( Criminal Law: Offences Relating to Public Order (Law Com No. 123, 1983) - (considered here). A White Paper followed in 1985 - Review of Public Order Law (Cmnd 9510) and this formed the basis of the 1986 Act which finally placed public order law almost entirely on a statutory basis. Previously, the law had been a complex and untidy mixture of common law offences (e.g. riot, rout, unlawful assembly, affray etc) and statute law (e.g. Public Order Act 1936).
Common law powers relating to "breach of the peace" remain in force and are used extensively. See, for example, Law and Lawyers 1st May 2011.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 Part V extended public order law - e.g. by sections aimed at "raves" (sections 63-66); "trespassory assemblies" (sections 70-71) etc.
The Public Order Act 1986 (‘POA’) did two principal things. First, it provided a framework of controls which apply to processions and demonstrations. These are aimed at the events themselves, and if, when, and how, they should take place. Secondly, it enacted a range of offences to deal with disorderly conduct of various degrees of seriousness, from riot, to behaviour causing alarm or distress.
The more serious offences: Riot, Violent Disorder and Affray
Riot - Public Order Act 1986 s.1 -
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. (This definition is amplified further in section 1 subsections 2 to 5. The offence is triable only in the Crown Court and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
Violent Disorder - Public Order Act 1986 s.2 -
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. (This is amplified in section 2 subsections 2 to 4. The offence is an "either-way" offence. In the Crown Court the maximum sentence is 5 years imprisonment. In the Magistrates' Court the maximum is 6 months imprisonment or a maximum fine of £5000. Magistrates' Courts rarely accept jurisdiction over this offence).
Affray - Public Order Act 1986 s.3 -
A person is guilty of affray if he uses or threatens unlawful violence towards another and his conduct is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety. (The offence is amplified in section 3 subsections 2 to 5. It is an either-way offence. In the Crown Court, the maximum sentence is 3 years imprisonment. In the Magistrates' Court the maximum is 6 months imprisonment or a maximum fine of £5000. Magistrates' Court sentencing guidance (page 85) indicates the type of case which might be dealt with in those courts. The offence of affray was considered by the House of Lords in I and another v DPP  UKHL 10).
The definitions of all 3 offences refers to the person of reasonable firmness. This may be viewed as the standard of disorderliness and it requires consideration of the likely effect of the behaviour on the average adult who might be present. It excludes the particularly timid, or the especially bold. However, no such person has actually to be present or even likely to be present. It is a hypothetical test.
Richard Stone in "Textbook on Civil Liberties and Human Rights" Chapter 7 - suggests that if - "people who could be categorised as ‘persons of reasonable firmness’ were actually present, no doubt their evidence as to the effect of the behaviour on them would be very relevant. On the other hand, the fact that an elderly person, or child, was in fact frightened by the behaviour does not turn it into a riot, if a person of reasonable firmness would not have been so affected. The fear has to be for the person of reasonable firmness’s own safety; fear as to what might happen to the participants, their victim (if any), or other persons present is not relevant. In theory, this seems a reasonable standard to apply. People should not be put in terror by the violent activities of others. In practice, however, it may be difficult to assess exactly what level of behaviour has such an effect, particularly where there were no ‘reasonably firm’ people present at the time."
These offences may be committed in private as well as public places.
It is clear that the offences carry heavy maximum sentences but maximum sentences are primarily there for the worst cases. The Sentencing Council has responsibility for the preparation of guidance. Regrettably, none has been prepared for use in the Crown Court in relation to these offences. The Magistrates' Courts Sentencing Guidelines offer some guidance for violent disorder and fuller guidance for affray. Sentencing in the Crown Court is therefore in the discretion of the judge who would be guided by (a) general sentencing considerations and (b) any previous appeal cases. The CPS website offers some information for riot, violent disorder and affray.
General sentencing considerations for adult offenders are essentially those set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 Part 12 especially sections 142-146 (Matters to be taken into account), 152 and 153 (General restrictions on discretionary custodial sentences) and 174 (Duty of court to give reasons for a sentence and to explain its effect. The matters to be taken into account include the aims of sentencing (s142) which are - punishment, reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public, making of reparation.
A recent example of sentencing for Violent Disorder is shown by the Gilmour case which arose from protests, in December 2010, against student fee increases. Media reports on the case are available at The Guardian and also a collection of reports in The Independent. Gilmour, aged 21 entered a guilty plea in May. He received a sentence of 16 months imprisonment. This sentence seems to be based purely on deterrence alone - i.e. to deter others from similar conduct. Gilmour very probably deserved to hear the "clang of the prison gates" but a shorter sentence (6 to 8 months) would surely have sufficed.
Fortnum and Mason protest: CPS drops charges - The Guardian 18th July