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Common Public Order Offences in Ireland

Public order offences in Ireland are governed primarily by the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994 (“the Act”), and are largely concerned with the behaviour and conduct of people in public places. In order to come within the legislation, a person must be in a ‘public place’, which gets a very broad definition in the legislation. Affray, violent disorder and riot can take place in a private place.

These offences are among the most prevalent in Ireland and many people who would otherwise never come to the attention of the courts can find themselves, sometimes but not always through alcohol, in a Garda station or before a District Court judge.

A person may be arrested without warrant by a member of An Garda Siochana if suspected of having committed a public order offence under the Act. It is a separate offence under the Act to fail to give, when asked, one’s name and address to a Garda who suspects a person of being involved in certain specified offences. The Gardai also have a power of seizure under the Act.

Very often, a person accused under the Act will find themselves accused of a combination of offences. Particular risk arises where an incident occurs with a number of people present (see below). The penalties under the Act range from a fine up to and including periods of imprisonment. Given the risk to liberty, a person accused of a public order offence or offences can apply to the Court for Criminal Legal Aid, if their means are insufficient to cover the cost of their defence.

Intoxication in a Public Place

Under section 4(1) it is an offence to be present in public place while intoxicated to such an extent it gives rise to a reasonable apprehension of endangering oneself or another. Thus merely being intoxicated (even incredibly intoxicated) by itself would not be sufficient, it is a requirement that there be an apprehension of endangerment. There need not be actual endangerment. It is consequently a very broad offence. ‘Intoxicated’ means being under the influence of any alcoholic drink, drug, solvent or substance.

Disorderly Conduct in a Public Place

‘Disorderly conduct’ means unreasonable behaviour which is likely to cause serious offence or annoyance to anyone who might reasonably be expected to be aware. There need not actually be a person present. For the offence to be constituted, the offensive conduct must take place between midnight and 7am, or at any other time after having been asked to desist by Gardai. Alleged offenders during daytime hours thus must in effect have a warning.

The Gardai can impose a fixed charge fine for disorderly conduct in a public place instead of issuing court proceedings.

Threatening, Abusive or Insulting Behaviour in a Public Place

Under section 6(1) it is an offence, while in a public place, to engage in threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, with an intent to provoke a ‘breach of the peace’, or being reckless as to whether a breach may be occasioned. A breach of the peace is a rather loosely defined common law offence whereby harm is done or likely to be done to a person, or in his person to his property, or a person is put in fear of being harmed through an unlawful disturbance (see below).

This offence is a step-up from offensive conduct. Behaviour need only be one of types specified to fall within the offence, and the types are defined on a case-by-case basis. It is broad enough to encompass sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Obscene Displays in a Public Place

Less common is the Section 7 offence, whereby a person distributes or displays in a public place:

  • Any writing sign or visual representation
  • Which is threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene
  • With intent to provoke breach of the peace, or reckless as to whether

‘Obscenity’ is material which would deprave and corrupt minds open to such ‘immoral’ influences. The courts will apply an ‘ordinary man’ test when deciding if the distribution or display of material is obscene.

Failure to comply with the direction of a member of An Garda Siochana

Section 8 creates the offence of failing to comply with a direction of member of the Gardai to stop conduct which the Garda suspects is contrary to sections 4, 5, 6, 7 or 9 of the Act, or where the Garda has a reasonable fear for the safety of persons or property or the maintenance of the public peace. The section buttresses Gardai powers in that they can direct a person alleged to be committing a public order offence to stop that conduct or to leave the area.

The offence is punishable by a term of six months imprisonment.

Willful Obstruction

Section 9 prohibits any person from, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, willfully preventing or interrupting the free passage of any person or vehicle in any public place. The offence protects the right of persons to travel on public roads or thoroughfares. It can be called into use where there are demonstrations or protests. While the Gardai have not power of arrest, they can invoke Section 8 (above).


Under section 16, affray arises where two or more people use or threaten to use unlawful violence towards each other, such as to cause a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ to fear for his or for another’s safety. Again, no person of reasonable firmness need be present. The violence involved must be directed towards each the other participants and not third parties, unlike violent disorder or riot. This offence is punishable by a term of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months on summary conviction, or 5 years on indictment.

Violent Disorder

Under section 15, violent disorder occurs where three or more people use or threaten to use unlawful violence towards each other, such as to cause a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ to fear for his or for another’s safety. That reasonably firm gentleman need not be actually present. It is immaterial whether the violence used or threatened to be used is done so simultaneously. It is sufficient if one one or two of those suspected of involvement is arrested and tried. Violent disorder is an indictable offence punishable by up to 10 years.


Riot is proscribed by section 14 and is conduct similar to that which gives rise to affray or violent disorder, involving twelve persons. Again it is immaterial whether the twelve use or threaten violence simultaneously. The violence must be used or threatened for a ‘common purpose’, though common purpose can be inferred from the parties’ conduct. As with violent disorder, the offence is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Common Law Breach of the Peace

Despite the putting on a statutory basis of the above offences, the common law offence of Breach of the Peace remains available to the prosecution.

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The material contained on this website is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. Any and all information is subject to change without notice. No liability whatsoever is accepted by Barron Morris for any action or omission made in reliance on the information on this site. If you require specific advice on any legal matter then please contact a solicitor.

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