Whenever I hear someone use a legal expression in everyday conversation I cannot help but give the little smirk of smug satisfaction that all lawyers are taught in their first year law school. It is not that I mean to do it. It is an unconscious reaction, I swear. I am like Pavlov’s dog; just as Pavlov trained his dog to associate the sound of a bell with food, causing the dog to unconsciously start drooling whenever it heard the ring of the bell, my smirk magically appears whenever I hear someone say ‘buyer beware’ or ‘the jury is still out’ in casual chit-chat. And I drool a bit too.
While I do not like to play favourites when it comes to legal phrases, I do have a favourite: I always smirk just that little bit harder whenever I hear of someone being ‘read the Riot Act’. Fortunately, in these modern times, where good manners and respecting ones elders are seen as optional extras rather than core human behaviours, there are plenty of opportunities for us to see examples of the Riot Act being read. A quick search of recent stories published by our completely independent and not at all under-resourced news media tell of:
– the Prime Minister reading the Riot Act to his party members for not being sufficiently sheep-like and agreeing unreservedly with every word he utters.
– the coach of a professional sports team that has just come off of a massive loss reading the Riot Act to his players for under-committing to their training in the lead-up to the match and over-committing to their drinking and partying the night before the match.
– Oprah, of all people, reading the Riot Act to Lindsay Lohan for being unprofessional during the shooting of the Oprah-produced reality series called Lindsay, following complaints by the production staff that sweet Ms Lohan was – shock – always late to filming and abusive to those around her.
Have you ever been read the Riot Act? I didn’t think so. You are not like Lindsay Lohan. You are good and kind and decent and help old people cross the street without expecting a financial reward for your service. If you can make it to the end of this article, I have a small gift for you as a reward for your behaviour: you will receive your own personal reading of the Riot Act. You can listen to it any time you stuff up in a major way (an event that I like to call ‘my life, every day and all day’) or you can send the audio track to someone that you think would benefit from being read the Riot Act (again, me every day and all day). The possibilities for its use are limited only by your imagination and your attention span.
But what exactly is the Riot Act?
Long before it was part of a cool legal expression used in daily life, the Riot Act was an actual Act of Parliament. It was first passed into law in the United Kingdom on 1 August 1715, which means we should all wish it a very happy, if slightly belated, 304th birthday. The full name of the Act is almost as long as the text of the Act itself: ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters’.
You don’t hear the word ‘tumult’ used too much these days. Shame, that. Let’s see if we can do something about it in the next couple of paragraphs.
The Riot Act permitted a brave, perhaps foolhardy, local official to approach a group of 12 or more people whom the official considered to be “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together”. The official then had the legal right to read the assembled crowd the Riot Act and ask them to disburse within the hour, with failure to comply resulting in their arrest. The glorious words that the official had to read in order to read the Riot Act to the tumult-ers and rioters were:
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, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.
I know, scary stuff. I would be oh so intimidated and frightened if I were to hear those words read to me by a city official while I was tumulting and rioting with my friends on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I am sure I would forget about all about my completely legitimate grievance with the government and that myself and all of my rioting buddies would quickly disburse to the nearest public house for a restorative tipple of warm ale.
The Riot Act held that anyone who failed to move along after being read the Riot Act had committed a felony, punishable by death. Yes, being read the Riot Act was not the flippant thing that it is in our modern times; failing to disband after being read the Riot Act could see you sent to the gallows to hang, hang, hang.
The Riot Act was not just a UK thing either. Alongside boatloads of convicts and musket-backed invasion-ism masquerading as colonialism, the Riot Act was exported to various UK colonies including Australia, New Zealand, and even the good old US of A.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end: childhood innocence, our planet if we do not do something dramatic in the next two to three years to stop our wanton destruction of the world’s environments, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, and even the Riot Act. The Act was abolished in the UK on 8 July 1973, almost 70 years after it was last officially used. Now it lives on in name only, its original purpose slipping into the incorporeal arms of the mists of time, where it rests in a well-earned eternal slumber. Still, as long as professional sports people continue to get drunk and act inappropriately (so as long as we still have professional rugby league players, then) the Riot Act will live on as a means of one person expressing their extreme disappointment and anger at the actions or inactions of another.
And now, as promised, you are going to have the opportunity of being read the Riot Act as your gift for being a decent person who would never riot nor tumult and so would never, ever be read the Riot Act in any other circumstances. Think of this as a bit of a make-believe session. You and 11 of your friends are causing trouble on the streets, and a local council official has just appeared out of nowhere to read you the Riot Act. The actual Riot Act from 1715, unfiltered and unabridged.
No, I will not be the one reading it. My voice is far too monotonous and I always slur my words. Instead, you will be read the Riot Act by my father, whose deep, commanding but compassionate voice is perfectly suited for such a task. Also, I feel the Riot Act should be read to you by a fatherly figure, and my father is the closest thing I have to one.
You can now proudly say you have been read the Riot Act. You have one hour to make your way to the nearest pub to celebrate this achievement. Failure to do so will result in your death. So sayeth the law.