It has been announced that S5 Public Order Act 1986 ("the Act") is to be amended to remove the word "insulting" from the s5 offence, following an amendement made in the House of Lords, which according to the BBC, is unlikely to be challenged in the Commons. Currently a person may be guilty of a s5 offence if he:
"uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby" (s5(1)(a) Public Order Act 1986)
The wording of the Act opened up the possibility of a person being arrested for making comments, remarks, outburts, gestures and so on, which on the one hand may be considered insulting to some, but within the bounds of the right to free speech.
This amendment follows a government initiated consultation into the Act last year. IARS, leading a consortium of youth organisations, which included the Stop Watch campaigning group, responded to this consultation. In the response we said,
"Within the specific context of stop and searches where young people may feel intimidated or aggravated as a result of the intrusive nature of a stop, it is crucial that police are able to distinguish between a young person dealing with the stress of such an event and a person intentionally causing insult. In such a situation, young people are at risk of being criminalised for struggling to cope with a stop that may have been badly dealt with by the police. The freedom of expression as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights does not apply exclusively to those wishing to express specific political or ideological beliefs, but provides everyone with the right to "receive and impart information". This may include a young person expressing their frustration with the way in which they have been dealt with by the police.
As highlighted in the case of DPP v Orum (1989) it is important that police officers "display a degree of fortitude" in the face of insulting behaviour. If they do not, there is the risk of innocent individuals being criminalised for actions that should not bring them into the criminal justice system. An example of this is a frustrated young person dealing with a stop and search."
We therefore welcome this amendment as a common sense move, which should clarify parliament's original intent when passing the Act and avoid situations where anyone, including a young person, is needlessly criminalised for expressing their thoughts, views or feelings.
To read the full consultation response, see below.