Law cases can highlight surprising old laws that still apply.
The High Court has determined who is ultimately liable for damage caused to the Sony distribution warehouse during the Tottenham riots.
On the night of 8 August 2011. The Sony distribution warehouse in Enfield in North London was burnt down by looters with the sums paid out by insurers totalling about £50 million in relation to the stock and buildings and £10 million for loss of rent and profits. The looting and arson was part of the widespread civil disorder and rioting following the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham.
Pursuant to the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, where damage to a property is caused in any police area by persons who are “riotously and tumultuously assembled”, the injured party is entitled to seek compensation from the police fund of the area, in this case the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime was the responsible body.
Prior to the 1886 Act, responsibility for riot damage was imposed on the local inhabitants of the area on the basis this would discourage them from participating in rioting to begin with and encourage them to suppress any riot at an early stage. On the basis that the police should be responsible for maintaining law and order where a number of persons were involved and were acting in an excited, noisy and agitated manner (i.e. tumultuously) , the responsibility to pay the compensation was transferred to the police by the Act.
Accordingly, the insurers, in the names of their insured, sought compensation for all damage and losses suffered. Their case was that the looting and arson was part and parcel of the general rioting as it involved about 25 youths with an average age of about 15 acting in an excited and agitated and noisy manner and causing damage for the very sake of it. Having undertaken some disorganised looting, the youths burnt the warehouse down with petrol bombs they had taken with them for that purpose.
The police, however, denied there was any “riotous and tumultuous assembly” as the incident only lasted 3 minutes and 20 seconds and took place on an isolated industrial estate. Its case was that the youths were set on robbing the warehouse and only burnt it down to destroy any forensic evidence left at the scene. In that respect, they were successful as no one was ever charged with any offence despite the police having a clear idea which local gangs were involved.
The Judge held that the Act did apply as the youths were acting in an agitated and volatile way and set on unlawful and wanton violence and there was a clear risk to the personal safety of the security guard and others they encountered at the nearby Premier Hotel. This was not a burglary but a chaotic process involving a large unsophisticated group of youths on BMX bikes who could only carry away a very limited amount of goods. Moreover, the incident took place against the background of rioting in the area and there had been a clear build up to the incident during the day which the police was aware of but, probably due to their strained resources at the time, had been unable to deal with.
Accordingly, the police fund was liable to pay compensation for the damage but the Judge held this should be limited to the direct physical damage to the building and goods within it and the Act did not cover loss of rent or profits. The insurers would have to meet all consequential losses.