The Right to a Peaceful Protest

Non-violent, peaceful protesting has proved effective throughout history, and continues do so throughout the world. From printed t-shirts and picket signs, to public demonstrations and mass marching, the right to a peaceful protest is an intrinsic part of a democratic society. It is a long and respected tradition within the UK, and is a right currently protected by European law.

Under the Public Order Act 1986, there is a distinction between static protests (assemblies and demonstrations) and moving protests (processions and marches along a route). The 1986 Act regulates how moving protests (‘marches’ for our purposes) are to be organised.

Marches

Organiser’s duties

The organiser of most marches must inform the police, and give the police notice 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 it is a funeral procession.

The notice must include the date and start time of the procession, the proposed route, and the name and address of the organiser. It must be delivered to a police station in the relevant area by hand or by post, at least six days beforehand. It is an offence to fail to comply with these notice requirements.

Can the police impose any conditions?

There is no guarantee that once notified to the police the march will go ahead. If the march is permitted, the police can impose conditions relating to the specific route, the number of people allowed to attend the march, the duration of the march, the types of banners which can be used, any restrict entry to a public place. Any restrictions imposed must be given in writing to the organiser.

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

Failure to adhere to any of the conditions imposed on a march will constitute a criminal offence. Different sanctions would be imposed on the organiser and the participants.

Can the police ban a march?

Under the Public Order Act, the police have powers to ban all, or a class of procession or marches in a specified area for up for three months.

Static Demonstrations and Assemblies

There is no need to inform the Police prior to a demonstration or assembly in a public place. Under the Public Order Act, the police have specific powers to control assemblies but cannot ban assemblies.

Can the police impose conditions on assemblies?

The police can impose conditions on an assembly in relation to the proposed location, the maximum number of people who are able to participate in the assembly, and maximum length of its duration. However, the police must reasonably believe that the conditions are necessary to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or if the purpose of the person organising the assembly is to intimidate others.

Human Rights

The right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This includes the freedom to hold public or private meetings, demonstrations, rallies and sit-ins without state interference.

However, this right is not an absolute right. Interference with this right is permitted if it can be justified, therefore, any condition imposed would have to be unjust or unreasonable to fall foul of Human Rights.

Are their specific regulations about protests outside Parliament?

Under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, the rights to non-violent protests near Parliament was restored. There is now a ‘controlled area’ around Parliament comprising Parliament Square garden, the footways immediately adjoining the central garden of Parliament Square; and the highways and gardens next to the Palace of Westminster.

Protestors must seek written permission to hold a demonstration on Parliament Square Garden under the byelaws of the Greater London Authority.

However, various activities within the controlled area are prohibited, including unauthorised use of amplified noise equipment (loudspeakers or loudhailers, etc), erecting or using tents or structures to sleep in; and using or intending to use sleeping bags or mattresses (and similar).

The police and other authorised officers can order people to stop these activities and leave the area. If they refused, their property can be seized and the police can use reasonable force to do so.

Powers to prevent a breach of the Peace

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 taking place, or is imminent.