Many of the matters before the lower courts relate to public order offences. Much of these offences are legislated for in the Public Order Act 1994. These offences include:

  • Intoxication in a Public Place

Section 4 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 deals with the offence of being intoxicated (that is, drunk) in a public place. While the maximum fine for being intoxicated in a public place is a class E fine, the section gives the Gardai the power to seize the intoxicating substance (normally, the alcohol) where they suspect that an offence of being intoxicated in a public place is being committed. Section 23B has been inserted in the Act by section 184 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and provides for a fixed charge fine instead of court proceedings for being intoxicated in a public place. This fixed charge fine, currently €100, may be set and varied by the Minister for Justice and Equality.

  • Threatening and Abusive Behavior

Section 6 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 makes it an offence for any person in a public place to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention of causing a breach of the peace. A typical example of this would be where a person, by their words or actions, was likely to cause a fight with the person or persons they were insulting. It would also cover the situation where groups of youths were looking for trouble by their threatening behaviour towards other people. Again, the Garda may confiscate alcohol. Any person found guilty of this offence can be liable to class D fine and to a prison sentence of 3 months maximum.

  • Violent Disorder

Violent disorder, which is covered by Section 15 of the Act, is similar to the offence of riot although it is a lesser version of that offence. Violent disorder reduces the number of persons present to a minimum of 3. These persons present must use or threaten to use violence and the conduct of those persons, taken together is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness, if present at that place to fear for his or her safety or the safety of another person. For an offence of riot to take place the accused person must have used violence whereas in the case of violent disorder the accused person need only threaten to use violence. It is also of note that riot and violent disorder differ in that there is no requirement for the group to share a common design or purpose. The maximum penalty for violent disorder is an unlimited fine and or a period of imprisonment for up to 10 years.

  • Affray

Section 16 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 states-

“Where –

  • Two or more persons at any place (public or private) use or threaten to use violence towards each other, and
  • The violence so used or threatened by one of those persons is unlawful, and
  • The conduct of those persons, taken together, is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at that place to fear for his or her safety or the safety of another,

then, each such person who uses or threatens to use unlawful violence shall be guilty of the offence of affray”.

The most important difference between affray and the offences of riot and violent disorder is that the violence involved in affray must be directed towards each other and not innocent by-standards. An example of this would simply be a group of persons fighting against each other in the street. However, as in the previous two offences the affray can take place in public or private. The offence of affray is only committed where there is actual unlawful violence used. Threats alone will not constitute the offence of affray. A person convicted of affray may receive a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine and or a term of imprisonment for up to five years.

  • Failure to Comply with the Direction of a Garda

Section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 was designed to create an offence of failure to comply with a direction from a member of the Gardai to desist (or stop) from such conduct in circumstances where the Garda concerned has a reasonable apprehension (or fear) for the safety of persons or property or for the maintenance of the public peace. The section represents a sensible approach where people are acting contrary to section 4, 5 or 6 (above) and the Gardai are of the view that to simply nip in the bud the potential trouble they can direct such people simply “move on” without having to apply the full force of the criminal law through arresting, charging and bringing before the courts such people. It shall be an offence to fail to comply, without reasonable excuse or lawful authority, with a direction given by a Garda under this section. Any person convicted of this offence is liable on summary conviction to a class D fine or to a maximum term of 6 months in prison or both.

  • Distribution or Display in Public Place of Material which is Threatening, Abusive, Insulting or Obscene.

While Section 6 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 deals with words or behaviour, Section 7 of the 1994 Act deals with distribution or display of offensive material. The penalty for this offence is a class D fine and or a prison sentence of 3 months maximum. The main difficulty which arises in section 7 is the fact that while something may be obscene to one person it might be thought to be quite normal by another person. The European Court of Human Rights has dealt with the issue of sensitivity in the case of Muller v. Switzerland (1991) 13 E.H.R.R.. That case considered a conviction in Switzerland against Mr Muller for displaying obscene paintings. The paintings depicted, in a crude manner, sexual relations between men and animals. The court held that the paintings were liable or likely to grossly offend the sense of sexual propriety of persons of ordinary sensitivity. It can therefore be said that the courts will apply the “ordinary man” test when deciding if the distribution or display of material is obscene or not.

A conviction for a public order offence may cause future issues with job applications visa applications etc. It is therefore advisable to seek legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity should you be accused of such an offence.

If you require representation for a public order offence or if you have a general criminal law query; contact us to arrange a consultation.

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