The Right to a Peaceful Protest

Peacefully Protesting

Protesting without the use of violence has had an abundant appearance throughout history. From t-shirt printing and picket signs, to public assembly and mass marching, many different non-violent protest methods have been thoroughly explored and implemented. In fact, the right to a peaceful protest is an intrinsic part of a democratic society and is a long and respected tradition within the UK.

This is however not an absolute right with some qualifications existing recently due to the threat posed by terrorism and also when concerned with anti-social behaviour.

Marches and Processions

The Public Order Act 1986 makes a distinction between processions and assemblies. A procession is said to be defined as people moving together along a route whereby a static protest is termed an assembly.

Processions are an extremely effective tool to voice opinions and to campaign about specific issues but they are also heavily regulated by legislation. Specifically the Pubic Order Act.

Organisers and Advance Notice

Organiser

The organiser of the procession or march is not specifically defined but will usually be selected prior to the event in the case of a large organized march but in the case of a smaller march it can be anyone who has taken the lead in organization.

Advance Notice

The organiser in the vast majority of marches will be required to inform the police concerning the march. Specifically notice should be given to the police if the march is intended to:

  • Demonstrate support for or oppositions to the views of any group
  • Publicise a cause or campaign
  • Mark or commemorate an event

Notice is not required if the march is purely spontaneous or if it is for a funeral procession.

Requirements of Notice

Is notice is required to be given to the police the following elements need to be present:

  • The date of the procession
  • The time that it will start
  • The proposed route
  • The name and address of the organiser

Where does the notice need to go?

The notice should be delivered to a police station in the area either by hand or by post and must be six days in advance effectively meaning a weeks notice should be given.

Offences

The organiser of a march will have committed an offence if:

  • Notice was not given as required
  • The date, starting time or route differs from that given on the notice.

Conditions Imposed by the Police

Prior to the March

There is no guarantee that once notified to the police that a march will go ahead. In advance of the march the Police Constable – in the case of London this will be the Metropolitan Police Commissioner – can impose conditions which relate to the specific route, the number of people allowed to attend the march, the duration of the march, the types of banners which will be able to be used, an even restrict entry to a public place.

If the conditions are to be imposed prior to the march then this must be done so in writing to the organiser.

During the March

During the march the most senior officer present can impose similar kinds of conditions but without the need to do so in writing. This can only be done however, if the senior officer reasonably believes that the march may result in the following:

  • Serious public disorder
  • Serious damage to property
  • Serious disruption to the life of the community

Criminal Offence

Failure to adhere to any of the conditions imposed on a march whether they be imposed prior to or during the march will constitute a criminal offence.  There will be different sanctions imposed on both the organiser and the participants of the march.

Police Banning Orders

Under the Public Order Act the Police are given powers to ban all or a class of processions or marches in a specified area for up for three months.

Static Demonstrations and Assemblies

In the case of static demonstrations there is no need to inform the Police prior to the demonstration or assembly taking place.

What is meant by an assembly?

An assembly can be constituted by more than one person but must be taking place in a public place. The definition of public place can constitute a highway or a pavement and any other place where members of the general public have access.

Public Order Act

Under the Public Order Act the police are provided with specific powers to control assemblies. They are not however provided with a power to ban assemblies as is the case with processions or marches.

Conditions

Under the Public Order Act the police can impose conditions on an assembly in relation to the following:

  • The location of the assembly
  • The maximum number of people who are able to participate in the assembly
  • The maximum length of duration of the assembly.

The Public Order Act provides that these conditions can only be imposed if the most senior police officer at the scene reasonably believes that:

  • The conditions are necessary to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or
  • The purpose of the person organizing the assembly is to intimidate others.

Human Rights

Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and thus the Human Rights Act guarantees the Right to Freedom of Assembly. Article 11 protects the right to peaceful assembly which includes the freedom to hold public or private meetings, demonstrations, rallies and sit-ins without interference from the state.

A common misconception that the conditions imposed by the Public Order Act will therefore fall foul of Article 11 but Article 11 is in fact a qualified right. This means that interference with the right can be justified. The UK law would only fall foul of Human Rights legislation is it could be proven that the conditions imposed were in fact unjustified. 

Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 has introduced new criteria when concerned with demonstrations which are to be conducted in the vicinity of Parliament. If a demonstration is to be conducted in this area the following things must be done:

  • Notice must be given to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner
  • Stating the time and date of the demonstration
  • How the demonstration is to be carried out
  • Whether it is to be carried out by him or himself

Metropolitan Police Commissioner

If the requisite notice is given then the Metropolitan Police Commissioner must give authorization for the demonstration to take place however conditions may be imposed if they are necessary to prevent the following:

  • Serious public disorder
  • Serious damage to property
  • Disruption of life in the Community
  • Risk to security or to health and safety
  • Hindrance to the proper operation of Parliament or to any person wishing to leave or enter Parliament

Offences under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005

If a demonstration takes place within the designated area without the authorization of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner then both the organizers and participants of the demonstration will be guilty of a criminal offence.

It is also an offence to knowingly fail to comply with the conditions imposed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner however if it can be proven that this arose from circumstances beyond his or her control then there will be no criminal offence. The offence and defence applies to both the organiser of the demonstration and the participants.

Further Police Powers

Terrorism Act 2000

Section 44* of the Terrorism Act 2000 enables the Chief Constable to designate a specific area whereby individuals, vehicles, drivers, passengers, pedestrians etc can be searched for articles which may be used in connection with terrorism.

Since the enactment of the act the whole of greater London has been designated as such as specific area under Section 44.

Under the Terrorism Act there is no grounds to be proven that there was a suspicion that any of these offending articles would be found.

Failure to stop to be searched or obstructing the police in the proper operation of their duties is a criminal offence under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

* Section 44 searches have been ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights  The power to use them against individuals, has been now removed by the Home Secretary. 

Powers to prevent a breach of the Peace

Breach of the peace is not actually a criminal offence in itself but under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 the police are able to arrest individuals where they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a breach of the peace is in fact taking place or is imminent.

Anti-Social Behaviour

An anti-social behaviour order can be imposed on an individual if that individual has behaved in a manner that has caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.  Under an ant-social behaviour order the court can impose conditions relating to an individual partaking in certain activities or entering certain areas.

As yet there has not be an anti-social behaviour order imposed in relation to protesting or demonstrating but it is reasonable to assume it could be used in this way.

Police also have the right to issue dispersal orders under Section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 which may be a more legitimate tool to combat protesting.

Contravening an anti-social behaviour order or a dispersal order is a criminal offence.