Please explain the differences between these three similar but distinct offences from the Public Order Act 1986.

2 Answers 2


Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 requires a person to:

  • use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards another person, or
  • distribute or display to another person any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting
  • with the intent of:
    • causing that person to fear immediate unlawful violence (e.g. getting punched, stabbed, etc.) against him or someone else by any one else, or
    • to provoke that person or someone else into immediate unlawful violence, or
    • cause that person to be likely to believe that such violence will be used or
    • it is likely that such violence will be used

Basically, S4 requires conduct with intent that violence (or the prospect of some form of violence) immediately follow. This could be something like "Beat up all gay people" or "I'm going to kill all Muslims".

Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 concerns itself with intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress. This is similar to Section 4 but requires intent to be proven and does not require any violence: just that someone is intentionally harassed, alarmed, or distressed by the conduct.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 is almost identical to S4A except there is no requirement to prove intent, or prove that anyone was actually harassed, alarmed, or distressed by the conduct.

The punishments for the offences are also different. S4 and 4A have a maximum punishment of six months imprisonment or a level 5 (standard scale) fine, or both, whereas S5 has a maximum punishment of a level 3 (standard scale) fine.

So S4 and 4A are treated as more serious offences than S5. S5 is easier to prove as it doesn't require any intention or that anyone actually be offended by the conduct.


S5 is just shouting things that are commonly offensive. S4 and 4a are shouting them at someone or a group of people.

As explained by an officer on the street, S5 would be shouting fuck fuck fuck. S4A would be saying to someone or a group of people "fuck you". S4 is saying to someone "I'm going to fucking kill you".

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