The Riot Act (1 Geo. 1, c. 5) of 1714 was an act introduced by the Parliament of Great Britain authorising local authorities to declare any group of more than twelve 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 August 1, 1715, and remained on the statute books until 1973.
Introduction and purpose
The Riot Act was introduced during a time of civil disturbance in Great Britain
, such as the Sacheverell riots
. 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
Proclamation of riotous assembly
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 twenty minutes, 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, Bailiffs 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".
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 reading the proclamation
If a group of people failed to disperse within twenty minutes 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.
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.
Prosecutions under the act were restricted to within one year of the event.
Subsequent history of the Riot Act in the UK and other countries
The Riot Act drifted into disuse, and was eventually repealed in the UK by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1973
(by which time riot was no longer punishable by death).
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.
As an act of the British Parliament, 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.
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.
Acts similar to the Riot Act have been enacted in some (if not all) Australian states. For example, in Victoria
, The "Unlawful Assemblies and Processions Act" (1958) allows 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.
The Central American
country of Belize
, another former British colony, also still retains the principle of the Riot Act; it was last read on January 21
, during the 2005 Belize unrest
, the Riot Act has been incorporated in a modified form into ss. 32-33 and 64-69 of the Criminal Code of Canada
. 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 their lawful business, on pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to an imprisonment for life. God Save the Queen!
Unlike the original Riot Act, the Criminal Code requires the assembled people to disperse within half-an-hour, and substitutes punishment by death with life imprisonment.
The principle of the Riot Act was incorporated into the first Militia Act
(1 Stat. 264) of May 8 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 at chapter 15 of title 10, United States Code. See 10 U.S.C. §§ 331-35 (2006).
"Read the Riot Act"
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 everyday use in English. To this day many jurisdictions that have inherited the tradition of British Common Law
still employ statutes that require police or other executive agents to deliver a verbal warning, much like the Riot Act, before an unlawful public assembly may be forcibly dispersed. See
, California Penal Code § 726