When the Kaiser Chiefs released the song “I Predict a Riot’, they clearly were not seeking to prophesise that which is currently being seen in London and various cities up and down the country. But certainly the phrase “riot’ is at the forefront of news stories that have appeared in the press in recent days.

Given the predominance of behaviour commonly referred to as ‘a riot’, it might perhaps be an appropriate moment to consider what actually constitutes a riot in law.

The offence is defined by section 1 of the Public Order Act 1986 as being where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety. Each of the persons using unlawful violence for a common purpose is guilty of riot.

The section continues to indicate that it is immaterial whether the 12 or more use violence or threaten it simultaneously and, beyond that, that the common purpose may be inferred from conduct and that it is an offence which may be committed in private as well as in public places.

What is perhaps of note and of interest to those who roundly condemn the behaviour exhibited is that the maximum penalty is one of 10 years.  The question that immediately follows of course is whether the courts are prepared to use the maximum.  The question was addressed in the case of Najeeb that came before the Court of Appeal in 2003.  To briefly give the background of that case, the participants had been involved in a riot which involved clashes between hundreds of white and Asian males following a speech made by the leader of the BNP.  During the course of the disorder, police officers were attacked with stones and petrol bombs and two of the police officers who had attended to deal with the riot were stabbed.  Stolen cars were set alight and there were premises severely damaged.  There was an estimate put on that damage as amounting to some £27 million.

Lord Justice Rose, in considering sentence, indicated that in the case of riot on this scale, the sentence for a ringleader after trial should be around the maximum of 10 years.  For an active and persistent participant who had used petrol bombs, a sentence of 8 to 9 years was appropriate and for those who were present for a significant period throwing stones could expect 5 years.

The Court of Appeal went on to say that where the evidence was overwhelming because the illegal activity of the defendants had been caught on camera, little discount could be expected for a guilty plea and perhaps the most significant and telling sentence, and that which may perhaps ring in the ears of the participants and those who seek that the matter be dealt with appropriately, the Court says that in cases of serious riot, deterrent sentences are required and, therefore, good character and personal mitigation would carry comparatively little weight.

There remains the question, however, whether the offence of riot will be charged as it would appear that some of the charges that have been laid as against those arrested actually relate to theft; given that those involved have stolen property from shops or stores during the course of the recent disorder.