Define: Civil Disorder

Civil Disorder
Civil Disorder
Quick Summary of Civil Disorder

Civil disorder, also known as a riot, occurs when three or more people engage in violent acts that pose an immediate threat to people or property. It is an unlawful disturbance of the peace by a group of three or more people who act together in a violent or tumultuous manner that threatens or terrorises the public. This can occur when a group assembles in a public place to accomplish a common goal, regardless of whether it is lawful or not. For example, a peaceful protest against a government policy may turn violent and result in damage to public property, constituting a riot or civil disorder. Under the law, a riot is an indictable misdemeanour punishable by a fine and imprisonment, and in some cases, it can be a felony punishable by imprisonment for life. It is important to note that peaceful protests or demonstrations are not considered civil disorder or riots; it is only when violence and destruction of property occur that it becomes a civil disorder.

What is the dictionary definition of Civil Disorder?
Dictionary Definition of Civil Disorder

Civil disorder, also referred to as a riot, occurs when a minimum of three individuals engage in violent acts in public, posing an immediate threat to individuals or property. A riot involves a group of three or more people gathering in a public location with the intention of achieving a shared objective through violent and chaotic means, regardless of the legality of their purpose. Engaging in such behaviour is illegal and can lead to penalties such as fines and imprisonment.

Full Definition Of Civil Disorder

Civil disorder, often referred to as civil unrest or civil disturbances, encompasses a range of public disruptions, including riots, protests, and mass gatherings, that can escalate into violence. This phenomenon presents significant challenges to law enforcement and raises important legal questions regarding the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the state. This overview will discuss the legal framework surrounding civil disorder in the United Kingdom, examining the relevant legislation, case law, and the balance between maintaining public order and safeguarding civil liberties.

Definition and Forms of Civil Disorder

Civil disorder is broadly defined as collective behaviour that disrupts the peace and order of a community. The most common forms include:

  1. Riots: Violent disturbances by a group, often leading to property damage and injury.
  2. Protests and demonstrations are public gatherings to express dissent or support for a cause, which can occasionally turn violent.
  3. Strikes and Industrial Actions: Work stoppages and other forms of protest by employees can disrupt public services and order.

Legal Framework Governing Civil Disorder

The UK legal system addresses civil disorder through a combination of statutory law and common law principles. The primary legislative acts include:

  1. Public Order Act 1986: This is the cornerstone of legislation relating to public order offences. It defines and penalises various forms of disorderly conduct, including riots, violent disorder, affray, and other threatening behaviours.
  2. Criminal Damage Act 1971: This Act deals with the intentional or reckless destruction of property, often associated with riots and violent protests.
  3. Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE): This Act provides the police with powers to maintain order, including the ability to arrest and detain individuals suspected of involvement in civil disorder.
  4. Human Rights Act 1998: This Act incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, ensuring that actions taken by the state to control civil disorder comply with human rights standards, particularly those related to freedom of assembly and expression.

Public Order Act 1986

The Public Order Act 1986 is pivotal in managing civil disorder. Key sections include:

  • Section 1: Riot: This section defines a riot as an incident involving 12 or more persons who use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose, causing others to fear for their safety. The maximum penalty for rioting is up to 10 years in prison.
  • Section 2: Violent Disorder: This involves three or more people using or threatening violence. Unlike riots, there is no requirement for a common purpose. Violent disorder carries a maximum sentence of five years.
  • Section 3: Affray: This offence can be committed by one or more persons using or threatening violence that would cause a person of reasonable firmness to fear for their safety. The penalty for affray is up to three years of imprisonment.
  • Section 5: Harassment, Alarm, or Distress: This includes the use of threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour in a way that causes harassment, alarm, or distress. This is a summary offence, punishable by a fine.

Criminal Damage Act 1971

The Criminal Damage Act 1971 deals with offences related to the destruction or damage of property. Key provisions relevant to civil disorder include:

  • Section 1: Destroying or Damaging Property This section covers intentional or reckless destruction of property belonging to another. During riots, this often includes damage to businesses, vehicles, and public infrastructure.
  • Section 2: Threats to Destroy or Damage Property: This involves threatening to destroy or damage property with the intent to cause fear or economic loss.

Police Powers and Responsibilities

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) grants the police extensive powers to manage civil disorder, including:

  • Stop and Search: Under Section 1 of PACE, the police can stop and search individuals suspected of carrying prohibited items or items intended for use in causing damage or injury.
  • Arrest: The police can arrest individuals without a warrant if they have reasonable grounds to suspect involvement in civil disorder.
  • Dispersal Orders: Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, police can issue dispersal orders requiring individuals to leave an area for up to 48 hours to prevent disorder.

Human Rights Considerations

The Human Rights Act 1998 ensures that measures taken to control civil disorder comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. Relevant rights include:

  • Article 10: Freedom of Expression: This protects the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information. Any restriction must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate.
  • Article 11: Freedom of Assembly and Association: This protects the right to peaceful assembly. Restrictions must be prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society for purposes such as national security, public safety, or the prevention of disorder or crime.
  • Article 5: Right to Liberty and Security: This ensures that individuals are not arbitrarily deprived of their liberty. Arrests and detentions must be lawful and justified.

Balancing Public Order and Civil Liberties

The challenge for law enforcement and the legal system is to balance maintaining public order with protecting individual rights. Courts often play a crucial role in this balancing act, as seen in various landmark cases:

  • R v. Howell [1982]: This case established the legal definition of a breach of the peace, providing police with guidance on when they can lawfully intervene to prevent disorder.
  • Austin v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2009]: The House of Lords held that the police’s use of “kettling” (containing protestors within a limited area) did not violate Article 5 of the ECHR, provided it was used proportionately and for a limited duration to prevent violence.
  • R (on the application of Laporte) v. Chief Constable of Gloucestershire [2006]: The House of Lords ruled that the police acted unlawfully by stopping and searching protestors on their way to a demonstration, as there was no immediate threat of violence.


Civil disorder presents complex legal challenges, requiring a careful balance between enforcing public order and respecting civil liberties. The UK’s legal framework, including the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Damage Act 1971, and the Human Rights Act 1998, provides the basis for addressing these issues. However, the dynamic nature of civil disorder means that law enforcement agencies and the judiciary must continually adapt to new circumstances, ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected while maintaining the peace and security of the community.

Civil Disorder FAQ'S

Civil disorder refers to a situation where there is a disruption of public order, typically involving a large group of people engaging in unlawful activities such as rioting, looting, or violence.

Participating in civil disorder can lead to various legal consequences, including arrest, criminal charges, fines, imprisonment, and a permanent criminal record.

Merely being present at the scene of civil disorder does not automatically make you responsible. However, if you actively participate or contribute to the disorder, you can be held legally accountable.

Yes, you can be arrested for civil disorder even if you did not commit any violent acts. If you are found to have participated in any unlawful activities associated with the disorder, you can still face legal consequences.

Whether or not you can be fired for participating in civil disorder depends on your employment contract, company policies, and the specific circumstances. Some employers may have policies in place that allow them to terminate employees engaging in unlawful activities that could harm the company’s reputation.

Yes, you can potentially sue individuals or groups responsible for damages caused during civil disorder. However, it can be challenging to identify and hold specific individuals accountable, and the success of such lawsuits may vary.

The government has the authority to impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of protests to maintain public safety and order. However, these restrictions must be content-neutral and not unduly infringe upon individuals’ First Amendment rights.

The use of self-defence during civil disorder is a complex legal issue. Generally, individuals have the right to defend themselves or others from imminent harm, but the level of force used must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat faced.

If you directly cause injuries to others during civil disorder, you can be held legally liable for their injuries. Additionally, if you contribute to the disorder in a way that indirectly leads to injuries, you may also face legal consequences.

In extreme cases, civil disorder can lead to a declaration of martial law, where the military takes control of civilian government functions to restore order. However, the declaration of martial law is a significant step that requires careful consideration and is typically reserved for the most severe situations.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 8th June 2024.

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