Breach of the peace

What is a breach of the peace?

Breach of the peace is a common law concept which is used to prevent unlawful violence against people or property. ‘Peace’ in this context refers to the Queen’s peace, and should be taken to mean ‘the opposite of war.’

What constitutes a breach of the peace?

It is now widely accepted that the correct definition for breach of the peace is that which was given in the case R v. Howell (1981), ie, that the behaviour of the person involved caused the police officer (or private citizen) to believe that:

  1. a breach of the peace had or would occur; and that
  2. it related to harm which was actually done or likely to be done to a person or, in his/her presence, their property.

What powers do the police have to deal with a breach of the peace?

Generally, the police have three options: to try to resolve the situation without using one of their common law powers; to use their common law powers of arrest; or to use their common law powers of entry.

Powers of arrest

The police can arrest and detain anyone who is committing, or they have reasonable cause to believe is about to commit, a breach of the peace.

Powers of entry

If the police reasonably believe that a breach of the peace is being committed, or is about to be committed, on private property, they may use their common law power to enter the property without a warrant to stop or prevent the breach.

When will an arrest for breach of the peace be lawful?

All citizens, not just the police, can make an arrest to stop or prevent a breach of the peace occurring in their presence. However, extreme caution should be taken before making such an arrest, because if the arrest is not lawful the individual making the arrest could be liable for false imprisonment.

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For more information on:

  • Sanctions
  • Human rights concerns over breach of the peace