The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006

Home Office circular 003 / 2007 The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 Broad subject: Crime and disorder Issue date: Thu Feb 01…

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Home Office circular 003 / 2007

The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006

  • Broad subject: Crime and disorder
  • Issue date: Thu Feb 01 00:00:00 GMT 2007
  • From:
    National Offender Management Service (NOMS) - Offender, Law and Sentencing Policy Directorate Criminal Law Policy Unit (CLPU)
  • Linked circulars:
    No linked circulars
  • Copies sent to:
    Chief Fire Officers ,Department for Communities and Local Government Services, NHS Counter Fraud and Security Management, Services (For further distribution to the NHS), Chief Executives of health bodies (NI), Chief Coastguard, Chief Executive, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, RNLI , Police Service of Northern Ireland, British Fire Services Association, Defence Fire Services, Civil Aviation Authority, British Airports Authority

  • Sub category: Crime and disorder legislation
  • Implementation date: Tue Feb 20 00:00:00 GMT 2007
  • For more info contact:
    Diana Symonds 020 7035 6989
  • Addressed to:
    Chief Officers of Police (England and Wales), The Chief Crown Prosecutor, Chief Crown Prosecutors, The Law Society, The Bar Council, Chief Executive and Director of Field Services, (HM Court Service), Senior District Judge (Magistrates’ Court), The Judicial Studies Board, The Justices’ Clerks’ Society, The Magistrates’ Association, Area Directors (HM Court Service), HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Clerks to the Police Authorities, The Head of Criminal Justice Delivery Unit (DCA), HM Chief Inspector of Probation, Youth Offending Team Managers, Chairmen of Police Authorities, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lords Justices of Appeal


  1. The purpose of this circular is to provide guidance on the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006. This circular is for guidance only and should not be regarded as providing legal advice. Legal advice should be sought if there is any doubt as to the application or interpretation of the legislation. The act will come into force on 20 February 2007.

  2. The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 contains two new offences. First the act makes it an offence to obstruct or hinder certain emergency workers who are responding to emergency circumstances. Emergency workers are defined as firefighters, ambulance workers and those transporting blood, organs or equipment on behalf of the NHS, coastguards and lifeboat crews. The police already have their own obstruction offence in the Police Act 1996. This also covers prison officers by virtue of the Prisons Act 1952, which says that prison officers, whilst acting as such, enjoy the same protections and privileges as a constable. There is no need to duplicate those offences, so the 2006 act does not include police or prison officers in the definition of ‘emergency workers’.

  3. The act covers obstruction when an emergency worker is responding to emergency circumstances or preparing to do so. Emergency circumstances are defined as circumstances which are present or imminent, and which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury or serious illness, worsen any serious injury or illness, or are likely to cause or worsen serious harm to the environment, buildings or property.

  4. Second, the act also makes it an offence to hinder or obstruct those who are assisting emergency workers responding to emergency circumstances. This will cover obstructing those who, for example, are fetching equipment or directing traffic during an incident to assist the emergency workers.

  5. The maximum penalty for an offence under this Act is a level 5 fine (Currently up to £5,000)

  6. The text of the act can be found can be found at :

  7. The offence applies in England and Wales. The act extends to Northern Ireland in respect of ambulance crews, those transporting blood organs and equipment, coastguards and lifeboat crews.

  8. This circular is in two parts:

  • A - Background to and context for the legislation
  • B - Formulation and purpose of the offences

A - Background to and context for the legislation

  1. Emergency workers provide an essential service for their communities. It is clearly essential to ensure that they can go about their business unimpeded, and without encountering abuse or violence. As part of its manifesto, the government made a commitment to ensure tougher sentences for attacks on those serving the public. Emergency workers are one of the categories of workers who are serving the public in their work. This measure therefore complements the government’s wider commitment.

  2. It is unnecessary to create a specific offence of assault for emergency workers. There are already comprehensive measures under the current law for dealing with attacks and violence in a wide range of circumstances. These apply to everybody, and include offences ranging from common assault through Actual Bodily Harm to Grievous Bodily Harm. The maximum sentences range from six months imprisonment for common assault to life imprisonment for wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm. There are also other provisions such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for persistent harassing behaviour, and offences of theft and criminal damage where essential equipment is at stake.

  3. Adequate offences already exist for assault, but it is clearly important that the sentencing for these offences reflects the seriousness of the crime. To promote greater consistency in sentencing, the Sentencing Guidelines Council was set up under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It is responsible for issuing sentencing guidelines on the full range of offences to all criminal courts. Courts must have regard to the guidelines, and if they decide to depart from them they must give reasons. The Sentencing Advisory Panel is an independent body which provides advice to the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Before submitting a proposal to the council, the panel is required to consult widely.

  4. The council issued guidelines on “overarching principles - seriousness” in December 2004, covering all offences. The fact that an offence was committed against those providing a service to the public is identified by the guideline as a serious aggravating factor. If present, this factor increases the severity of the sentence for any offence. Other factors identified in the guideline may well be relevant to offences under the 2006 Act. For example, there may be evidence of the offenders acting as part of a group or gang, and of the offence being planned and premeditated. Any of these factors which are present in particular cases should be drawn to the attention of the court, as should the fact that they are mentioned in sentencing guidelines.

  5. In addition, the Sentencing Advisory Panel has consulted on draft guidelines covering sentencing for all violent crimes against the person. Sentencing guidelines will be issued in due course following the consultation and consideration by the council. We expect them to re-iterate that a victim serving the public is a serious aggravating factor in any offence of violence, and to explain that attacks on any victim serving the public can have a serious impact on the ability to deliver the public service.

  6. The obstruction offences will complement the government’s Respect drive which is committed to build a modern culture of respect and ensuring two-way respect between those serving the public and the individuals and communities they serve. The offences aim to catch disruptive and potentially dangerous behaviour, before it escalates to more serious offences, such as assault or other offences of violence. Where violence or a real threat of violence has occurred, consideration should be given to charging the offender with an offence of violence. The level of violence and the damage or potential damage which might have occurred should be factors in determining which is the most appropriate charge. In particular, where an emergency worker or emergency equipment has been put out of action, the effect of this on the ability to deliver public services should be taken into consideration.

  7. The new obstruction offences should not be viewed in isolation, but as part of a package of measures designed to tackle anti-social behaviour and workplace violence more generally. Where obstruction is part of a pattern of anti-social behaviour, consideration should be given to the whole range of tools which might help to tackle this, including Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and, where young people have been involved, Parenting Contracts and Orders. The emergency services themselves can participate in a combined approach to tackling disorder and violence. For example, many Fire and Rescue Services run youth schemes, which help engage young people and ensure they realise the damage which their activities may cause. The schemes also help the youths make reparation to the community, and can be part of community sentences. The new offences should encourage a combined and multi-agency approach to tackling behaviour at an early stage.

  8. The act should also be seen as complementing wider initiatives to tackle workplace violence. For example, the NHS have introduced a range of measures, such as conflict resolution training and guidance for lone workers. They are also working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that any offences are treated seriously if they are perpetrated against NHS workers, and to ensure that offences are prosecuted appropriately. The Health Service has Memoranda of Understanding between the Health Service, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service. Copies can be found at

  9. This combination of prevention and robust enforcement has lead to a downward trend in violence against NHS workers. Other measures such as encouraging the recording of incidents, and installing CCTV in the cabs of fire appliances have been shown to be effective, and consideration should be given to finding measures which will be effective locally.

B Formulation and purpose of the offences

Emergency workers

  1. The first offence is designed to protect a specific group of emergency workers who respond to ‘blue-light’ situations. The groups of emergency workers it covers are listed above. The definition covers those working under contract and volunteers providing an ambulance service on behalf of the Health Service, including air ambulances. And it includes all Fire and Rescue Services in England and Wales, whether they are working for local authorities, at airports, as members of the forces, or for private companies. It will also include obstructing anyone who is responding to an emergency as part of a reciprocal arrangement with Fire and Rescue Services in England and Wales. Where reciprocal arrangements exist with Scottish Fire and Rescue services, the law will cover workers from the Scottish service responding to an emergency situation. Scotland has separate legal provision. Northern Ireland has legislation covering obstruction of firefighters, so the offence does not need to apply to firefighters there.

  2. The act also creates a second offence of obstructing those assisting emergency workers who are responding to emergency situations. This covers voluntary and other organisations who are at an emergency who might otherwise not be covered. It also covers individuals such as first aiders who may be helping at the scene of an accident, or those who are directing traffic in order to allow the emergency workers to deal with an incident.

  3. There was already an offence of obstructing a firefighter under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. This will be repealed at the same time that the new offences are commenced, though behaviour before then will still be covered by the old offence. For firefighters, therefore, the effect of the Act will be to provide a simpler offence with a higher penalty than previously, up from a maximum level 3 (£1,000) to level 5 (£5,000). But for ambulance workers, coastguards and lifeboat crews the act provides new offences not previously covered by the criminal law. Creating one single offence ensures that it is easier to understand, and underlines the important role of all emergency workers.

Emergency circumstances

  1. The offence covers emergency workers responding to emergency circumstances or preparing to do so, and those responding to circumstances when they believe there is or may be an emergency. This means it will be an offence to obstruct such workers even when the emergency they are responding to does not materialise. It is important that the offence covers this so that, for example, if a group of young people deliberately call out the fire and rescue service when there is no emergency, but then obstruct them, the young people will still be guilty of an offence. Such behaviour can be damaging, and can prevent the fire and rescue service from reaching another emergency in time. Emergency workers travelling to the emergency site is also covered by the phrase ‘responding to emergency circumstances.’

  2. ‘Preparing to respond to emergency circumstances’ will include, for example, donning protective suits, attaching hoses to fire hydrants or other immediately preparatory activity. But it will not include training in preparation for a potential incident. Obstructing emergency workers whilst in training does not have the same potentially serious consequences as obstructing them when responding to an emergency or potential emergency, and is not covered by the act.

Obstructing or hindering

  1. The new offence will cover those who without reasonable excuse obstruct or hinder an emergency worker responding to emergency situations. The terms ‘emergency worker’ and ‘emergency circumstances’ are described above. Examples of obstruction might include parking where an emergency vehicle cannot get by and refusing to move, or damaging an emergency vehicle or equipment. Obstruction could include giving false information at the scene of an emergency, which would delay or mislead emergency workers. But it would not cover deliberate hoax calls, which are dealt with in other legislation.

  2. The obstruction offences are confined to emergency workers and those assisting them. It would be disproportionate to create a general criminal offence of obstruction in all circumstances. But the harm which may be caused by obstructing or hindering an emergency worker in emergency circumstances justifies criminal penalties in the absence of a reasonable excuse for the conduct.

  3. The Secretary of State may by order add or remove categories of emergency workers. This allows existing categories of worker to be updated quickly, for example, where a service has changed its name or reorganised. It also allows the Secretary of State to quickly add categories of emergency workers if it becomes apparent that there is a particular problem with a particular category of emergency worker.

Reasonable Excuse

  1. It is important that the offence will not apply where the obstruction was inadvertent or unavoidable. The term ‘reasonable excuse’ will offer a defence to, for example, a person who is in a traffic jam, and causes an obstruction because he cannot get out of the way. Or the necessary road works which may delay an emergency vehicle. It will allow the court to take all the relevant circumstances into account in deciding what is ‘reasonable.’


Published 1 February 2007