The main elements of s.5 are set out in s.5(1)(a) and (b).


“(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."  (my italics).


A major objection to this law is that it is too vague and all-encompassing. 'Disorderly behaviour', for example, is not defined by the legislation. And it is not necessary for anyone to be ACTUALLY harassed, alarmed or distressed. The courts just have to think that someone was LIKELY to have such an emotional reaction. No evidence from any member of the public is required, and in practice the only evidence provided is that given by the police.


Government funded research, carried out by Home Office staff, has shown that the police often use s.5 to 'enforce respect' for themselves. See, for example, Brown D and Ellis T, Policing Low-Level Disorder: Police Use of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, Home Office Research Study 135 (London: Home Office, 1994) available from the Home Office website.

The section has been used to criminalise such behaviour as swearing at a police officer and displaying in a pub a football scarf carrying a slogan insulting to a rival team. There are many other examples that can easily be found on Youtube or through the BBC news website, or by watching 'police reality' shows on television (such as StreetCrime UK). As may be seen by many of those examples, the section represents a clear threat to freedom of speech and the right to protest.

A further problem with the section is that the police can issue an 'on the spot' fixed penalty fine of £80 for someone they say has breached this law. While people have the right to refuse this fine and fight the matter in court, many people do not realise this, or are scared of court and the higher penalties it might impose, or just want to get the matter over and done with. There have been over a quarter of a million such fines issued for s.5 in the last five years.

The case for repealing the offence is fleshed out in a chapter I wrote for a recent report on ethnic profiling published by the Runnymede Trust.    



Why is this idea important?

This is an example of an over-broad criminal offence which does not have any actual harm element. In practice it is used by the police in a misguided attempt to enforce respect for themselves. It often has the opposite effect.

The reality is that this over-bearing form of policing is damaging to police-community relations, meaning that the police get less cooperation from the public when they really need it (eg, in major crime inquiries).

Unlike many criminal offences that have been nominated for repeal, this one is very frequently invoked by the police and is of major importance to police-community relations.

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