Triple helpings of jail all-around planned for Bristol protestors.
On Thursday 13th of May, eight people were charged with rioting for the “Kill The Bill” demonstration in Bristol. This is very unusual as even the most rumbustious of protests in recent times have generally had Violent Disorder as the most serious offence charged and we have not seen the mass use of Riot charges since the Bradford disturbances of 2001. This is bad news for everyone involved in the protest for which the police have at least 110 suspects.
England has had public order laws since ancient times. They shared the feature that there didn’t need to be an individual victim but rather the public at large or more poetically “the Queen’s Peace”. Also similar to the principle of Joint Enterpris,e you got sentenced not for what you did but for what was done by the crowd as a whole. As a bonus, the Riot Act 1714 allowed Magistrates to order the shooting of rioters by the army. But, in the great tradition of British fair play, only after they had read the Act and given people an hour to run away or hide. Fortunately, this was repealed in 1973 but the common law offences of Riot, Affray, Unlawful Assembly and Rout remained until too many people were acquitted by juries from protests during the Miners Strike of 1984/5. This caused a rethink.
The Public Order Act 1986 sorted out and put all the offences in one Act in a fairly logical way. Riot is the most serious and is section one. Then Violent Disorder at 2, Affray at three, Threatening Behaviour four, and Disorderly Behaviour five. With proportionally descending maximum sentences from 10 years through 5, 3, 6 months to a fine. A section 4A got added in 1994 to spoil the structure. Riot was however very rarely charged with, even then, only a handful of convictions even for the likes of the 2002 Millwall Riot which allegedly saw 150 coppers and 26 of their horses injured.
Now there is one really good reason why there are so few riot prosecutions. Way back in 1886, the Ruling Class were fed up with their properties being destroyed by rioters. They passed a law that said that if there was a riot it was obviously the fault of the police! And therefore the police should pay for all the property damage. Hence official “Riots” became rare. This was updated in 2016 when Riot Damages Act 1886 became the Riot Compensation Act following claims from the August 2011 disturbances that has changed this somewhat. Despite thousands of arrests and prosecutions very few were for actual Riot though that didn’t stop lots of very harsh sentences. And withering remarks from the ludicrously named Lord Chief Justice Judge.
So what’s the difference? Riot requires 12 people present together using or threatening unlawful violence with a common person such a person of reasonable firmness would fear for their safety if they were present. Violent Disorder needs only 3 people who don’t need a common purpose and can be done by threats as well as actual violence. Violence is pretty broad though and includes violence against property, for example, throwing an object that doesn’t hit anything. So in reality it’s not much and quite obscure so that any scuffle on a big demo could easily be either.
So most importantly. What do you get? The average sentence for Riot in the decade 2006 to 2016 was five years and three months. Of those convicted of Violent Disorder, only 69% got immediate custodial sentences as opposed to 100% for Riot, and these averaged 1 year 7 months. Hence our headline. These stats are backed by the recent sentencing guidelines which make the penalties harsher than ever.
What should I do if I’m suspected of rioting?
You may wish to hand yourself into the police so your name can be cleared as quickly as possible but if you don’t fancy spending the next few years locked in a small box 23 hours a day don’t bother with that, just keep your lawyer’s number handy and have your legal defence in mind. For most people this will be using reasonable force to defend yourself, others and preventing criminal violence by the police.
What should everyone else do?
Aside from offering solidarity and backing the defence campaign, you may wish to ponder the wisdom of Machiavelli. In his history of Florence, Nicky puts these words into the mouth of a riot leader.
“Now if the question now were whether we should take up arms, rob and burn the houses of the citizens and plunder churches I would think it worthy of further consideration…but as we have already…We must therefore in order to be pardoned for our faults, commit new ones; redoubling the mischief and multiplying the arsons and robberies and endeavour to have as many companions as we can: for when many are at fault few are punished; small crimes are chastised but great and serious ones rewarded.”
Photo by Guy Smallman.