Breach of the peace

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The term 'breach of the peace' freqently occurs in legal documentation, but its meaning is not well defined. A breach of the peace is not merely a disturbance, but a situation where there is an outbreak of violent behaviour, or the threat of such behaviour. A breach of the peace need not occur in a public place, or involve members of the public. There are specific powers of arrest under Common law where a breach of the peace is anticipated (see: Power of arrest), and these powers are less well regulated that those under legislation (e.g., Police and criminal evidence act (1984)). The police have often made use of such powers where there is no right to arrest for a specific offence, and therefore the courts have often been called upon to decide whether such an arrest was lawful. In addition, a constable may call on any member of the public to help suppress a breach of the peace, and it remains (at least technically) an offence to refuse to assist. It seems not to matter whether the assistance would be effective or not, or whether the member of the public would be placed in danger.

At present, the most widely cited definition of breach of the peace is the one given in R v howell (1981) (see the summary of the case for details) which requires that a person suffer harm, or fear of harm, as a result of riot or affray. However, there have been attempts to broaden the scope of the offence, as in R v devon (1981).

Criminal Law