There are several laws connected with public order that are very open-ended in their scope. A leading example is section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which gives the offence of using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”. This could cover almost anything.

On the one hand, the police need to have reasonably open-ended powers, so that the constable on the spot can use his or her common sense. On the other hand, such laws can be used by police who happen not to like activity that is perfectly legitimate. For example, section 5 was used against people who were holding up placards opposite the London Scientology Centre in Queen Victoria Street on 10 May 2008.

So I suggest attaching to all such powers a list of activities that are not, in themselves, offences under those powers. One would need to consult on what should be on the list, but a couple of obvious examples would be holding up placards and going about completely nude in public.

This approach should be applied to any common law offences of this nature, as well as to statutory offences.


Activities that happened to include activities on the list might still be offences. Thus holding up a placard and waving it about in such a way as to endanger passers-by might be an offence.


The approach will not be perfect: there will be scope to argue about what should be on the list of exclusions from being offences. But it should cover a good deal of the ground, and leave us in a much better position than we are now.

Why is this idea important?

On the one hand, we need to allow police officers on the beat to do their jobs flexibly. On the other hand, we must ensure that they cannot act like school prefects, and manage our conduct more than is necessary. This approach offers a reasonable compromise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.