Queen's peace

From Academic Kids

In English law, the Queen's peace (or King's peace, when a male is on the throne) is the peaceful, violence-free state that the realm should endure in at all times.


Duty of crown to maintain peace

It is part of the duties of the Crown under the Royal Prerogative to maintain the Queen's peace. This function is now carried out by the Government, although it remains a duty of the Crown. Should the Crown fail in this duty, it can be under a duty to pay compensation to the subjects whom it has failed. This was the justification for the 18th Century Riot Act and subsequent legislation, counterparts of which appeared in countries throughout the British Empire. Where the civil authorities declared that the Queen's peace had failed (i.e. there was a state of Riot) the rules changed: the authorities (either police, or the army or milita providing Military Aid to the Civil Power) could shoot and kill the ringleaders of the riot, and generally take severe action towards those in a state of Riot. The counterbalance was that the Crown was responsible for the damage caused by the Riot — the Crown having failed in its prerogative duty to preserve the peace. Even today, the criminal offence of Riot (now enshrined in an Act of Parliament) can only be prosecuted with the consent of the Attorney-General (i.e. the Queen's legal officer).

Office of Justice Of The Peace

Historically, and in particular before the founding of the police and the modern legal system, the concept of the Queen's peace was much more important. Knights of the Peace were appointed in each shire and it was their duty to maintain the Queen's Peace. These Knights of the Peace later became known as Justices of the Peace or JPs, and subsequently as Magistrates. Paid magistrates are now called District Judges (Criminal), and are drawn from the ranks of local solicitors. Unpaid magistrates are volunteers from the community — the requirements are that they must be of clean character and local.


Police have a right to detain any person who is creating a "breach of the peace". This is not a criminal or civil offence — it exists as a legal oddity created by the Royal Prerogative. Persons so detained must be taken before a magistrate (i.e. a Justice of the Peace) who will "bind them over" to keep the peace. Once so "bound over" the person may not disturb the peace again for the appointed time. If they do so, they are liable to imprisonment. The police frequently use this power to break up difficult situations or minor fights — and often then detain someone for breach of the peace, take them round the corner, and once they are satisfied that the fight is over, let them go. Alternatively, if alcohol is part of the problem, the person can be held until he is sober enough to face the magistrate — which usually solves the problem, as for most citizens the prospect of sobering up in the police cell, and a stern talk from a bench of three magistrates while nursing a hang-over is sufficient to push the message home for a few days. Because breach of the peace is not a criminal offence, people so bound do not have a criminal record which can blight their future career.

The definition of murder in English law is still a Common Law crime and is defined as "the unlawful killing of a reasonable creature in being under the Queen's peace with malice aforethought". Lawful killing includes execution (before abolition of the death penalty) or the police shooting somebody who is waving a gun around. A "reasonable creature in being" limits the offence to humans. The Queen's Peace excludes wars, and in times past could also be applied to riots. "Malice aforethought" covers the need for intent to kill or cause grevious bodily harm.

In the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, offences such as murder are deemed to be against the respective Duke's Peace (the Duke of Lancaster being merged with the Crown, but nevertheless a separate office, and the Duke of Cornwall being the Heir to the Throne).

Influence on other legal systems

In the United States, arrest warrants and charging documents often make reference to an offense having occurred "against the peace and dignity of" the respective state or commonwealth.

See also: Disorderly conduct


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