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0 London Riots: Could police be libel for damage under 600 year old law?

The fallout from last summer’s riot continues to rumble on, with consequential loss claims against the police relying on principles that can be traced back to the age of Robin Hood.

Almost six months on from the summer riots in London, and other major UK cities, the impact on the nation and the insurance industry is still being felt.
An ancient statute was dusted off as hundreds of claims were brought by property owners, and their insurers, against the police authorities, forcing both parties to get to grips with the antiquated Riot (Damages) Act 1886. The government acted fast in August, passing extended new regulations to the time limit for claiming under the 1886 Act from 14 to 42 days and scrapped the mandatory claim form.
Claims were swiftly assessed and adjusted by insurers and submitted to the relevant police authority. Some claims have already been rejected, but most are awaiting determination by police authorities, who have requested further information from claimants. The outstanding claims have caused a growing controversy. Was all the claimed damage caused by rioters? Are consequential losses, particularly business interruption losses or rental losses, recoverable under the 1886 Act?

A question of principle
It is unclear what principles will be applied by the courts, with some questioning why the Act compels police to pay riot damages. The reasons take us to unrest in the 18th century and right back to an ancient story reminiscent of Robin Hood.
Under the 1886 Act, a building, or property within, has been damaged, stolen or destroyed by any persons “riotously and tumultuously assembled together”, compensation must be paid by the local police authority. The rationale behind this is seen in the legal history of riots. Before the creation of the police service by Sir Robert Peel and the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, law and order was a communal responsibility.
When the Saxons of towns and villages in England refused to chase and capture the Robin Hoods of their time and return goods stolen from the Norman nobility, the King decided to make the community itself pay. It resulted in Edward I passing the Statute of Winchester 1285. This made the local community, then called the hundreds, liable if they failed to prevent felonies, including the burning of houses.

Magistrates were introduced by Edward III
in the Justices of the Peace Act 1361 and had a dual role of policing the area on behalf of the community and punishing offenders. The law developed through the Elizabethan age bringing the Riot Act 1714. As well as introducing the phrase “reading the Riot Act” it provided the same statutory remedy for a spate of 18th century riots in towns and cities across the county. A plaintiff whose buildings were damaged by riot could bring a claim in court against the hundreds, city or town.
It was this provision that was consolidated and reformed, after the introduction of police forces, into the 1886 Act. The rationale behind the 1886 Act is not just public compensation but the historical concept that it is the entire community’s duty to prevent riots. The Police Act 1996 requires each authority to maintain an efficient and effective police force. If a riot takes place, the police authority is strictly liable for the damage as it is presumed to have resulted from defective policing.
As Justice Lyell commented in 1967: “There is nothing secret or furtive about a crowd of people who are acting riotously and tumultuously. It seems to me that the right to compensation from public funds was given because the public authorities had failed to protect the public who were menaced by a threat which was, or ought to have been, obvious to the forces of law and order as they existed from time to time”.

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