The public disturbances on the streets of London (and other major English cities) in August 2011 resulted in mass looting, arson and vandalism, caused significant property damage, threatened the livelihood of small independent traders, and left others homeless. Recognising that many victims were partly or completely uninsured, the Prime Minister has encouraged those affected to claim for compensation under the Riot (Damages) Act.
The Act has been on the statute books since 1886 and is intended to compensate individuals and businesses who have suffered loss or damage as a result of a riot (as legally defined under the Public Order Act 1986). The law only applies in England and Wales (i.e. it excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland) and compensation does not include damages for loss of trade, personal injury, or cars parked on the road (cars damaged while in buildings or premises – such as a garage – are covered).
A claimant’s first port of call should be to their insurer (if they have one) to check whether the damage is covered under their policy. If there is no insurance, or only part of the damage is covered, the claimant may seek compensation for the rest by applying to the police authority for the area in which the “injury, stealing or destruction” caused by “persons riotously and tumultuously assembled” took place. It is unclear whether a fully insured claimant can reclaim their excess (or deductible) under the scheme.
The government has set up a central claims office to deal with all incidents, regardless of locality. However, Police authorities in affected areas (such as the Metropolitan Police in London, the Greater Manchester Police, and the Leicestershire Police Authority) have also posted contact details and forms on their web pages for potential claimants. The form, which has been developed by the government, and is the same in all areas, requires details of the incident, a description of the damage to property or looted stock, and a declaration that the claim is genuine.
Compensation is paid out from a Police fund after an inquiry into the merits of the claim. The amount of compensation is up to the Police, who will award “such compensation as appears to them just”. The Police are entitled to take a number of factors into account when fixing the amount of the award, such as whether the applicant: (a) took reasonable precautions to protect against damage; (b) was a party or accessory to the riot; or (c) provoked the incident that led to the damage.
The Act itself is written in general terms, leaving much of the practical aspects to the discretion of the relevant Secretary of State (in the current case, the Home Secretary, Theresa May). For instance, whilst the usual limitation period for claims is 14 days from the date the damage was suffered, the government has extended that period to 42 days.
Despite the fact that the Prime Minister has urged those affected to claim under the Act, recent cuts in Police funding may lead the affected Police forces to challenge whether a riot actually took place. The legal definition of “riot” requires those participating in it to have a “common purpose”. It could be argued that opportunistic vandalism, looting and theft don’t fall within this definition. That said, given that the Police response in the first days of the disturbances has been roundly (and rightly) criticised to be too passive, it is highly unlikely that any meaningful objection will be raised.