Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Riot Act (1 Geo. 1, c. 5), long title "An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", is an old piece of English legislation allowing certain officials to declare any assembly of more than twelve persons to be unlawful and order the assembly to disperse within one hour on pain of death. Most sources say it was enacted in 1715, but it was actually enacted in 1714 and went into effect in 1715. This was a period of insurgency in England.
To invoke the Act, the following words had to be read by a "justice or justices of the peace, or by the sheriff of the county, or his under-sheriff, or by the mayor, bailiff or bailiffs, or other head-officer, or justice of the peace of any city or town corporate":
- Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King.
In Canada, the version goes as follow:
- "Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or their lawful business, on pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to an imprisonment for life. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
The Riot Act has to be read verbatim, and at least one conviction has been overturned in a case where the words "God Save the King" had been omitted.
Because the Riot Act was passed during the Colonial period, it was inherited by many British colonies. The Act was repealed in Britain in 1973 but a modified version lives on in Canada under sections 32–33 and 64–69 of the Criminal Code. This Riot Act is similar, but requires rioters to disperse within 30 minutes and substitutes life imprisonment for the death penalty. A "riot" is defined in the Criminal Code as "an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously."
In many common-law jurisdictions, a lesser disturbance such as an affray or an unruly house-party may be deemed an unlawful assembly by law enforcement authorities. The applicable statutes in many cases appear to have evolved from the Riot Act. Failure to obey an order to disperse, once such order has been issued, may be prosecuted as a summary offense.
The expression "to read the riot act" comes from the real Riot Act and means to severely reprimand, as in "When I was late for work again, the boss really read me the riot act!"
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