An affray is the legal term in English common-law jurisdictions for a fight or altercation between two or more people in a public place. The altercation must cause some form of terror or fear for bystanders and passers-by. An affray charge can be leveled against two people engaged in a public fight or against hundreds of people involved in mob violence or rioting. Depending upon the jurisdiction, the individuals involved in an affray may be charged with a a misdemeanor, which usually involves a fine or short jail term, or a felony, which carries significant jail or prison time.
In many regional jurisdictions, a charge of affray is a serious consequence of what might appear initially as a relatively minor incident — a bar fight or other form of disorderly conduct, for example. A charge of affray, however, is more serious than a disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace charge because an affray is considered an offense against the public order.
Laws regarding public order govern the behavior of individuals in public places. In the United Kingdom (UK) the Public Order Act of 1986 lists numerous activities for which an affray charge can be made. Under the UK act, an affray charge cannot be based upon words or speech alone. Unlawful violence or the physical threat of unlawful violence must occur in a public space. In jurisdictions outside the UK, however, speech alone can be the basis of a public order offense.
The penalties for a public fighting charge are extremely varied, and depend largely upon the legal jurisdiction in which the incident transpires. Also weighing heavily on the adjudication of such a charge are the extenuating circumstances surrounding the incident. For example, a simple fight between two people over a personal matter, unrelated to any bystanders or passers-by, will typically not result in an affray charge.
Incidents that involve multiple parties and that involve an explicit or implicit threat of terror or violence directed at passers-by or bystanders will usually be considered a serious offense against the public order and adjudicated as such. In some jurisdictions, there are mandatory minimum sentences for such cases in which the defendants are found guilty, often involving prison time, community service and substantial punitive and compensatory fines.