Unlawful assembly is an offence which involves a group of people intending to disturb the peace. The offence is designed to deal with unruly behaviour at public protests, demonstrations and processions. All states and territories except the Australian Capital Territory have legislation which covers unlawful assembly. These laws, which carry hefty penalties including imprisonment, have been placed in the spotlight after recent protests including the Women’s March 4 Justice and Black Lives Matter protest.
In Queensland, unlawful assembly is found in the Criminal Code Act 1899 under the heading of “riot”. If 12 or more people present together use or threaten to use unlawful violence to a person or property for a common purpose, and their collective conduct would cause a reasonable person in the vicinity to fear for their safety, each person is deemed to have committed the crime of taking part in a riot. It is immaterial whether there is, or is likely to be, someone in the vicinity who fears for their safety.
The maximum penalty for the offence is 3 years imprisonment. However, if the offender causes grievous bodily harm to a person, causes an explosion, or destroys or starts to destroy a building, vehicle (which includes a train, plane or boat) or machinery, that maximum penalty increases to life imprisonment. If the offender is armed with a dangerous or offensive weapon, instrument or explosive substance, the maximum penalty is 7 years imprisonment.
Western Australia’s Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913 dedicates a chapter to unlawful assembly, which it classifies as a breach of the peace. Only 3 people are required to create an unlawful assembly, and those people assemble to “tumultuously disturb the peace” or “needlessly and without reasonable occasion provoke other persons tumultuously to disturb the peace”. When the unlawful assembly actually disturbs the peace, it is called a riot and the people assembled are said to be “riotously assembled”.
The maximum penalty for anyone who takes part in an unlawful assembly is imprisonment for 12 months and a fine of $12,000. If a person who is part of an unlawful assembly does not follow a police officer’s direction to disperse, the maximum penalty doubles if the matter is heard in a Magistrates Court, or it becomes 3 years imprisonment if dealt with by a higher court.
Participation in a riot carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 2 years and a fine of $24,000 if the matter is heard in a Magistrates Court, or 5 years imprisonment if dealt with by a higher court. If there are 12 or more people in a riot, and any one of them does not follow a police officer’s direction to disperse, they are liable to imprisonment for 10 years. If property is unlawfully destroyed or damaged in a riot, each rioter is liable to imprisonment for 10 years. If the property is destroyed or damaged by fire, each rioter is liable to imprisonment for 14 years.
Unlawful assembly laws under The Northern Territory’s Criminal Code Act 1983 mirror those of Western Australia but the penalties differ. Participation in an unlawful assembly carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 1 year, and participation in a riot, 3 years. A rioter who fails to follow a police officer’s direction to disperse or who unlawfully damages property, is liable to a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.
New South Wales
In New South Wales, the Crimes Act 1900 defines an unlawful assembly as 5 or more people “whose common object is by means of intimidation or injury to compel any person to do what the person is not legally bound to do or to abstain from doing what the person is legally entitled to do”. The Act states anyone who knowingly joins or continues in an unlawful assembly is liable to a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to 6 months or a fine of up to 5 penalty units ($550), or both. If an offender is armed with any weapon or loaded firearm, or with anything that if used as a weapon that could cause death or grievous bodily harm, the maximum penalty doubles.
Unlawful assembly in Victoria is covered by the Unlawful Assemblies and Processions Act 1958. It states it is not lawful for people to “assemble together riotously and tumultuously and to the disturbance of the public peace”. It also states if any of those people “happen to be killed, maimed or hurt” in their “dispersing, seizing or apprehending”, the person intervening “shall be free, discharged and indemnified of, for and concerning the killing, maiming or hurting”.
Unlawful assembly in South Australia is classified as a riot under the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935. The Act states a person will be guilty of participation in a riot if they are among a group of 12 or more people who use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose in a way that would cause fear “ in a person of reasonable firmness”. The riot can be in a public or private place, and it is irrelevant whether a person of reasonable firmness is present or not at the scene. The basic offence carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 7 years, and the aggravated offence, 10 years.
Tasmania’s Criminal Code Act 1924 criminalises participation in an unlawful assembly or a riot, as well as failure to follow a police officer’s direction to disperse.
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