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s.5 Public Order Act (causing unintentional harassment, alarm or distress)

Comment 6th July 2010

If considered generally necessary, to take steps to ensure that it is not used in cases of ‘looking the wrong way at a policeman’.

Why does this matter?

Whilst accepted that officers should be able to do their jobs without feeling intimidated, they are often involved in scenarios where people are understandably upset. The scope for this charge being brought after an officer is offended by a member of public being offended for being treated like a criminal when they have committed no offence, is significant. The offence is not imprisonable and so an accused does not qualify for a duty solicitor or legal aid at court. The evidence is usually solely the word of the police, who also make the charging decision. There is no right to a jury trial. As the maximum penalty is a fine, the accused often cannot be bothered with taking it to trial given the time off work it would require, the stress and the potential cost. A criminal conviction can still have a significant impact on a life. This law is too frequently used to criminalise behaviour that should not be criminalised and in circumstances where there is a real risk of injustice. Police often appear to threaten it if someone swears.


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