Section 4 Public order Act 1986 – Threatening Words or Behaviour

Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 establishes an offence of fear of provocation of violence by threatening words or behaviour.

This offence is slightly different to the offence under s4A which is intentional harassment, alarm or distress. 

In this article we look at the s4 offence and examine what has to be proven by the prosecution and how such cases can be defended.

What is “threatening words or behaviour”?

The offence of threatening words or behaviour causing a fear of provocation of violence under s4 of the Public Order Act 1986 contains a number of ‘elements’ that the prosecution must prove in order to gain in a conviction. These are:

– That a person uses towards another person threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour; or 
– That a person distributes or displays to another person any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting; and 
– That the person has intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another.

This offence may be committed in both a private place and a public place HOWEVER  subsection 2 of the act specifically states that the offence cannot be committed where both the defendant and the person threatened are in a dwelling house.

The offence is as ‘summary only’ so can only be tried in the Magistrates Court.

What is the definition of Insulting, Threatening or Abusive?

The definitions of ‘insulting’, ‘threatening’ and ‘abusive’ is not a question of law, but a question of fact. The courts have held that the meaning of an ordinary word of the English language, such as “insulting” should not be legally defined beyond its normal meaning (Brutus v Cozens [1973] A.C. 854). It is important in considering whether the conduct complained about actually amounted to the definition of the type of offence alleged. Often conduct which may be unpleasant does not cross the threshold to become either insulting, threatening or abusive.


It should also be noted that a s4 offence requires what is called ‘specific intent’. This means that the prosecution has to prove that the defendant has an intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person. 

If the conduct is for a different purpose, for example it is borne out of frustration or is done in an effort to provoke or amuse then the offence is not made out (Hughes v DPP [2012] EWHC 606 (Admin); 176 J.P. 237, DC). 

This is often the case in ‘neighbour dispute’ cases where it is often successfully argued that the conduct in question was designed to achieve a specific aim such as to dissuade the neighbour from carrying out certain conduct but was not designed to make the neighbour believe that immediate violence would be used against them.

Immediate unlawful violence

‘Immediate’ under the terms of the Public Order Act means that there must be proximity in time and in causation. 

So as far as the actions are concerned it must be likely that violence would result within a relatively short period of time and without any other intervening occurrence. (Horseferry Road Magistrates’ Court, ex p. Siadatan [1991] 1 Q.B. 280; (1991) 92 Cr. App. R. 257, DC). 

Unlawful violence means that the violence in question must be unlawful. This means that if the violence was carried out under lawful self-defence or in defence of another then it would not be unlawful and the offence would not be made out. The burden of disproving a defence of self-defence will be upon the prosecution once it has been raised by the defence. 

Can s4 public order Act be committed inside a Dwelling house?

Under s5(2) of the Public Order Act 1986 – if both the defendant and the alleged victim are inside a dwelling house then the offence cannot be made out. The definition of a dwelling is contained within s8 of the Public Order Act 1986 and is as follows:

“dwelling” means any structure or part of a structure occupied as a person’s home or as other living accommodation (whether the occupation is separate or shared with others) but does not include any part not so occupied, and for this purpose “structure” includes a tent, caravan, vehicle, vessel or other temporary or movable structure;

The question of the interpretation of s8 was addressed in DPP v D [2017] EWHC 2244 (Admin). In s.8, “dwelling” was defined as being, “any structure or part of a structure occupied as a person’s home or as other living accommodation …”. A part of a building might be deemed as “part of a structure”, but a garden would not be classed as a “structure or part of a structure” inhabited by someone as their “home” or “other living accommodation”.


If convicted an offender may be sentenced to a maximum period of imprisonment of six months. Recent figures show that 14% of offenders are sentenced to immediate custody for this offence and that 35% of offenders received community sentences and 23% received fines. The average length of a custodial sentence was two months imprisonment.


There are many defences that can be set out and so if you are charged with this offence you should contact us asap.

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