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Grenfell effigy bonfire and Section 4A – a flawed piece of legislation

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Was a criminal offence committed when a group of friends took it into their head to mock up a Grenfell Tower cardboard effigy and set it ablaze on Bonfire Night? The short answer would seem to be … it’s complex – and that the law six of them have been arrested on is deeply flawed and potentially oppressive.

The question for the police is: did their action amount to causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress according to Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986? This says:

  1. A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—
    (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
    (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
    thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

The cardboard Grenfell Tower is a “visible representation” and setting it alight is “behaviour”. But the issue is the motivation of those doing it. Leaving aside the social media issue, the burning of the effigy was in a private garden – possibly among like-minded friends. Can the police show intention to cause  harassment, alarm or distress to a particularly defined group? Can they also show that such harm was, in fact, caused?

The Section 4A provision of the Act that the police are using is something of a confused botch-up. Significant parts of the Public Order Act are very much about public, open places or public buildings. It is about avoiding public disorder: riot, affray, provocation of violence; that sort of thing.

But Section 4A was introduced in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, at a time when a new sense of public threat was abroad under a tough new Home Secretary, Michael Howard (the 1994 Act also cracks down on trespassers and squatters). The political focus was on victims and toughening up the law dealing with the remarkably subjective harms of “harassment, alarm or distress” (wording also in Section 5, and controversially so; see Harvey v DPP 2011; see here) but not explicitly in a there-and-then public space.

In contrast, Section 4 (part of the original Act) on provocation uses similar wording, criminalising threatening, abusive and insulting words and behaviour and visible representations etc but only insofar as there is “intent to cause that person [the victim] to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person”.

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