Verbal abuse and harassment in public
This summary does not cover every eventuality but intends to outline some of the possible criminal offences that may be committed. It should not be treated as legal advice and is not meant to be an exhaustive account of this area of law.
The police are responsible for investigating an allegation that a crime has been committed. Following investigation, the decision whether to charge a person with a criminal offence lies either with the police or the CPS.
Where a series of existing offences – including harassment and public order offences – are committed, and such an offence was motivated by hostility to race or religion, or was accompanied by hostility to race or religion proximate to the commission of the offence, a separate racially or religiously aggravated offence is committed attracting a greater penalty. For further details, see the CPS-published guidance on this website. For those offences not covered but where hostility or hostile motivation towards race or religion is present, or hostility or hostile motivation towards disability, sexual orientation or transgender is present, this must be treated as an aggravating factor at sentence and stated as such in open court.
It should be borne in mind that any non-physical offence - such as those outlined below - that can be committed in person on the street can also be committed online.
Public order offences
1. These offences contrary to the Public Order Act 1986 relate to threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or display of visible representations, which:
- Are likely to cause fear of, or to provoke, immediate violence: section 4;
- Intentionally cause harassment, alarm or distress: section 4A; or
- Are likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress (threatening or abusive words or behaviour only): section 5.
2. It is a defence to section 4A and section 5 for the accused to demonstrate that their conduct was reasonable, which must be interpreted in accordance with the freedom of expression and other freedoms. If these freedoms are engaged, a justification for interference (by prosecution) with them must be convincingly established. A prosecution may only proceed if necessary and proportionate.
3. For further details, see the full guidance published in the Prosecution Guidance section of this website.
Harassment and stalking offences
1. The offence of harassment contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is committed where a person engages in a course of conduct which amounts to the harassment of another person, and they know it amounts to harassment or they ought to know. “Course of conduct” is a fact-specific assessment. It requires behaviour on more than one occasion but this need not be the same behaviour on each occasion. A phone call, face-to-face meeting, e-mail or tweet are different types of behaviour, but when taken together could be considered to amount to a course of conduct depending on factors such as the number of occasions and the period over which this took place. Conduct which is targeted at a small group of people can also amount to harassment.
2. Again, it is a defence to prove the conduct was reasonable which must also be interpreted in accordance with the freedom of expression and other freedoms. If these freedoms are engaged, a justification for interference with them (by prosecuting) must be convincingly established. A prosecution may only proceed if necessary and proportionate.
3. The offence of stalking is committed when the harassment amounts to stalking, a non-exhaustive list of examples of which are:
- Following a person;
- Contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means;
- Publishing any statement or other material:
- Relating or purporting to relate to a person; or
- Purporting to originate from a person;
- Monitoring the use by a person of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication;
- Loitering in any place (whether public or private);
- Interfering with any property in the possession of a person;
- Watching or spying on a person.
4. For further details, see the full guidance published in the Prosecution Guidance section of this website.