Riot Act

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For the album by Pearl Jam, see Riot Act (album). For the Xbox 360 game called Riot Act in Japan, see Crackdown.
The Riot Act
The Riot Act booklet from Britain, early 20th century.

The Riot Act[1] (1714) (1 Geo.1 St.2 c.5) was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain that authorised local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action. The Act, whose long title was "An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", came into force on 1 August 1715. It was repealed for England and Wales by section 10(2) of, and Part III of Schedule 3 to, the Criminal Law Act 1967.

Introduction and purpose[edit]

The Riot Act of 1714 was introduced during a time of civil disturbance in Great Britain, such as the Sacheverell riots of 1710, the Coronation riots of 1714 and the 1715 riots in England. The preamble makes reference to "many rebellious riots and tumults [that] have been [taking place of late] in divers parts of this kingdom", adding that those involved "presum[e] so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences".

Main provisions[edit]

The text of the Riot Act
The full Riot Act. The lower part contains the proclamation that was to be read aloud.

Proclamation of riotous assembly[edit]

The Act created a mechanism for certain local officials to make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together". If the group failed to disperse within one hour, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.

The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the mayor, bailiff or "other head officer", or a justice of the peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a justice of the peace or the sheriff or under-sheriff. It had to be read out to the gathering concerned, and had to follow precise wording detailed in the act; several convictions were overturned because parts of the proclamation had been omitted, in particular "God save the King".[2]

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!

Consequences of disregarding the proclamation[edit]

If a group of people failed to disperse within one hour of the proclamation, the Act provided that the authorities could use force to disperse them. Anyone assisting with the dispersal was specifically indemnified against any legal consequences in the event of any of the crowd being injured or killed.

Because of the broad authority that the act granted, it was used both for the maintenance of civil order and for political means. A particularly notorious use of the act was the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester.[citation needed]

Other provisions[edit]

The Act also made it a felony punishable by death without benefit of clergy for "any persons unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled together" to cause (or begin to cause) serious damage to places of religious worship, houses, barns, and stables.

In the event of buildings being damaged in areas that were not incorporated into a town or city, the residents of the hundred were made liable to pay damages to the property owners concerned. Unlike the rest of the Act, this required a civil action. In the case of incorporated areas, the action could be brought against two or more named individuals. This provision was significant because it encouraged residents to attempt to quell riots in order to avoid paying damages[3]

Prosecutions under the Act were restricted to within one year of the event.

Controversies[edit]

Impracticality[edit]

At times, it was unclear to both rioters and authorities as to whether the reading of the Riot Act had occurred. One example of this is evident in the St. George's Fields Massacre of 1768. At the trials following the incident, there was confusion among witnesses as to when the Riot Act had actually been read.[4]

Use of Force[edit]

In the St. George's Fields Massacre of 1768, large numbers of subjects gathered outside King's Bench Prison to protest the incarceration of John Wilkes. Officials feared that the crowd would forcibly release Wilkes from prison, and troops arrived to guard the prison. After some time, as well as provocation by the rioters, the troops opened fire on the crowd. There were several fatalities, including non-participants of the riot who were struck by stray bullets.[5] Some scholars believe that this massacre set the legal precedent for the justified use of force in future riots.[4]

The provision pertaining to the use of force can be found in Section III of the Riot Act:

"...and that if the persons so unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled, or any of them, shall happen to be killed, maimed or hurt, in the dispersing, seizing or apprehending, or endeavouring to disperse, seize or apprehend them, that then every such justice of the peace, sheriff, under-sheriff, mayor, bailiff, head-officer, high or petty constable, or other peace-officer, and all and singular persons, being aiding and assisting to them, or any of them, shall be free, discharged and indemnified, as well against the King's Majesty, his heirs and successors, as against all and every other person or persons so unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled, that shall happen to be so killed, maimed or hurt, as aforesaid."

There was also confusion regarding the use of troops as it pertained to the one-hour mark. Rioters often believed that the military could not use force until one hour had passed since the reading of the proclamation. This is evident in the actions of the rioters at the Massacre of St George's Fields, particularly their provocative behavior towards the soldiers.[6]

Subsequent history of the Riot Act in the UK and colonies[edit]

The Riot Act caused unfortunate confusion during the Gordon Riots of 1780, when the authorities felt uncertain of their power to take action to stop the riots without a reading of the Riot Act. After the riots, Lord Mansfield observed that the Riot Act did not take away the pre-existing power of the authorities to use force to stop a violent riot; it only created the additional offence of failing to disperse after a reading of the Riot Act.

The Riot Act was read prior to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, as well as prior to the Bristol Riots at Queen's Square in 1831. Both are held to be related to the Unreformed House of Commons, which was righted in the Reform Act 1832.

Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head and his administrators read the Act during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. The malcontented Canadians were assuaged by the eventual introduction of responsible government in Canada.

The death penalty created by sections 1 and 4 and 5 of the Act was reduced to transportation for life by section 1 of the Punishment of Offences Act (1837).

The Riot Act drifted into disuse. The last time it was definitely read in the United Kingdom was in Birkenhead on 3 August 1919, during the second police strike when large numbers of police officers from Birkenhead, Liverpool and Bootle joined the strike.[7] Troops were called in to deal with rioting and looting that sprang up, and a magistrate read out the Riot Act. None of the rioters subsequently faced the charge of a statutory felony.[citation needed] Earlier in the same year, at the battle of George Square on 31 January, in Glasgow, the city's sheriff was in the process of reading the Riot Act to a crowd of 90,000 – when the sheet of paper he was reading from was ripped out of his hands by one of the rioters. However, it was claimed to be read at a bonfire in the village of Chiddingfold, Surrey, in 1929.[8]

The Act was repealed on 18 July 1973 for the United Kingdom by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1973[9] (by which time riot was no longer punishable by death).

The Riot Act in other countries[edit]

The Riot Act passed into the law of those countries that were then colonies of Great Britain, including the North American colonies that would become the United States and Canada.[citation needed]

In many common-law jurisdictions, a lesser disturbance such as an affray or an unruly gathering may be deemed an unlawful assembly by the local authorities, and ordered to disperse. Failure to obey such an order would typically be prosecuted as a summary offence.

Australia[edit]

Acts similar to the Riot Act have been enacted in some Australian states. For example, in Victoria The Unlawful Assemblies and Processions Act (1958) allowed a magistrate to disperse a crowd with the words (or words to the effect of):

Our Sovereign Lady the Queen doth strictly charge and command all manner of persons here assembled immediately to disperse themselves and peaceably depart to their own homes. God save the Queen.

Anyone remaining after 15 minutes may be charged and imprisoned for only one month (first offence) or three months (repeat offence). The Act does not apply to crowds gathered for the purpose of an election.

The same Act allows a magistrate to appoint citizens as "Special [Police] Constables" to disperse a crowd, and provides indemnity for the hurting or killing of unlawfully assembled people in an attempt to disperse them.[10] The Act was significantly amended in 2007.[11]

Belize[edit]

The Central American country of Belize, another former British colony, also still retains the principle of the Riot Act; it was last read on 21 January 2005, during the 2005 Belize unrest. Whilst there is no specific form of words provided for such proclamations, they must be made 'in the Queen's name'.

The provisions are formed in sections 231, 246 and 247 of the country's Criminal Code, providing particularly that:

Any magistrate, or in the absence of any magistrate any commissioned officer in Her Majesty's Naval, Military or Air Force Service or any police officer above the rank of inspector, in whose view a riot is being committed, or who apprehends that a riot is about to be committed by persons being assembled within his view, may make or cause to be made a proclamation in the Queen's name, in such form as he thinks fit, commanding the rioters or persons so assembled to disperse peaceably.

Any person who does not disperse within one hour of the proclamation being read is liable to receive a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.[12]

Canada[edit]

In Canada, the Riot Act has been incorporated in a modified form into ss. 32-33[13] and 64-69[14][15][16] of the Criminal Code. The proclamation is worded as follows:

Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business on the pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to imprisonment for life. God Save the Queen.

Unlike the original Riot Act, the Criminal Code requires the assembled people to disperse within 30 minutes. Paragraph 68 provides for the life imprisonment should the proclamation be ignored. In the absence of a proclamation, paragraph 65 stipulates imprisonment for not more than 2 years as punishment for rioting.

The Riot Act is seldom read in Canada; the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 is a seminal event in Canadian history, and the 1958 First Nations riot over racial discrimination in Prince Rupert, British Columbia is relatively well known.[17][18] The most recent reading was during Vancouver's Stanley Cup Riot in June 2011.[19] The Ottawa Citizen published a brief history of Canadian riots in 2007.[17]

New Zealand[edit]

In New Zealand the Riot Act was incorporated into Sections 87 and 88 of the Crimes Act (1961).[20] The proclamation is worded as follows:

Her Majesty the Queen commands all of you to disperse immediately and to go quietly to your homes or to your lawful business, upon pain of being charged with an offence punishable by imprisonment for 5 years. God Save the Queen.[21]

The need to read the Riot Act was removed by section 3 of the Crimes Amendment Act (1987 No 1).[22][23]

United States[edit]

The principle of the Riot Act was incorporated into the first Militia Act (1 Stat. 264) of 8 May 1792. The Act's long title was "An act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions".

Section 3 of the Militia Act gave power to the President to issue a proclamation to "command the insurgents to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, within a limited time", and authorised him to use the militia if they failed to do so. Substantively identical language is presently codified in section 334, chapter 15 of title 10, United States Code.[24]

"Read the Riot Act"[edit]

To this day many jurisdictions that have inherited the tradition of English common law and Scots law still employ statutes that require police or other executive agents to deliver an oral warning, much like the Riot Act, before an unlawful public assembly may be forcibly dispersed.

Because the authorities were required to read the proclamation that referred to the Riot Act before they could enforce it, the expression "to read the Riot Act" entered into common language as a phrase meaning "to reprimand severely", with the added sense of a stern warning. The phrase remains in common use in the English language.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ This short title was conferred by the Short Titles Act 1896, section 1 and the first schedule.
  2. ^ The Legal observer, or, Journal of jurisprudence 2. J. Richards. 1831. p. 32. Retrieved 2009-12-30. 
  3. ^ W. Nippel, "Reading the Riot Act: The Discourse of Law-Enforcement in 18th Century England," History and Anthropology 1 (June 1985): 405-406.
  4. ^ a b W. Nippel, "Reading the Riot Act: The Discourse of Law-Enforcement in 18th Century England," History and Anthropology 1 (June 1985): 408.
  5. ^ W. Nippel, "Reading the Riot Act: The Discourse of Law-Enforcement in 18th Century England," History and Anthropology 1 (June 1985): 407-408.
  6. ^ W. Nippel, "Reading the Riot Act: The Discourse of Law-Enforcement in 18th Century England," History and Anthropology 1 (June 1985): 407.
  7. ^ "The last reading of the Riot Act on mainland UK". Quezi.com. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  8. ^ Karen Oakwell-Boulton (2011-11-02). "History". Chiddingfold Bonfire. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  9. ^ Section 1(1) and Part V of Schedule 1.
  10. ^ Unlawful Assemblies and Processions Act 1958[dead link]
  11. ^ Amendments[dead link]
  12. ^ "Belize Criminal Code Chapter 101". Belizelaw.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  13. ^ "Criminal Code". Laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  14. ^ "Criminal Code". Laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  15. ^ "Criminal Code". Laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  16. ^ "Criminal Code". Laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 
  17. ^ a b canada.com: "Black Day in July" 21 Jul 2007 (Ottawa Citizen)
  18. ^ princerupertlibrary.ca: "Prince Rupert Fire Museum"
  19. ^ "Stanley Cup Fans Post Game". CBC News. 16 June 2011. 
  20. ^ "Crimes Act 1961". The Knowledge Basket. 1962-01-01. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  21. ^ "Section 88 of the Crimes Act 1961". The Knowledge Basket. 1962-01-01. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  22. ^ "Crimes Act 1961 No 43, Section 88". Parliamentary Council Office. 2012-10-01. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  23. ^ "Crimes Amendment Act (1987 No 1)". The Knowledge Basket. 1987-03-12. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  24. ^ "10 USC Chapter 15 - INSURRECTION | LII / Legal Information Institute". Law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-24. 

External links[edit]