Whilst the right to protest is legal in the UK there are restrictions and processes you should be aware of if you are planning to organise or take part in a protest. Here we outline the key UK protest rights.
Protesting is legal in England and Wales, the right to protest is protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. However, this only applies to peaceful protest and does not extend to any violence inflicted or damage caused during a protest.
It must be noted that this right is not absolute and can be limited in certain circumstances. An example of this is when a protest or assembly would result in a threat to public health.
It is therefore not surprising that as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.K., additional legislation has been passed which puts restrictions on the right to assembly. This legislation makes it an offence for groups to assemble, which would include a protest or march.
This legislation gives the police the power to break up groups and they can fine or even arrest an individual who they believe has committed an offence under the legislation.
Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides freedom of assembly. This means that every individual, regardless of cause, has the right to protest, march or demonstrate in a public space.
Not only does every individual have this right but the police have a duty to retain from restricting this right unnecessarily and they must take measures to protect peaceful protests. Even if they do not agree, or if there is some disturbance or offence caused to the general public, the police must demonstrate a certain degree of tolerance towards protesters.
An individual also has the right under the ECHR to freedom of expression. This includes a right to hold your own opinion as well as to receive and impart information without interference from public authorities.
While these rights are not absolute, they can only be limited if it is necessary and proportionate for the authorities to do so.
These rights also only apply to public spaces. Therefore, anyone protesting on private property without the permission of the occupier are likely to be viewed as a trespasser.
Any limitation to the right to protest must be outlined in legislation. It must also be necessary, proportionate and for one of the following aims:
– in the interest of national security or public safety
– to prevent disorder or crime
– to protect health or morals- to protect others’ rights and freedoms.
Importantly, since the England and Wales lock-down, COVID-19 legislation has been passed which put limitations on the right to assemble and therefore the right to protest. This is in the interests of protecting public health.
More generally, the police have the power to impose conditions or restrictions on a protest to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property, serious disruption to the life of the community or to prevent intimidation of others. This power is outlined in the Public Order Act 1986 and amounts to limiting the route/location, the duration or the amount of people participating.
The police have the right to limit these rights if there is a breach of the peace. This occurs when an individual causes harm, or if it is likely that they will cause harm, to another individual or property, or if it puts another person in fear of being harmed.
In these situations, the police may take reasonable steps, including arrest, to prevent or stop a breach of the peace.
You do not need to have permission to protest unless you are the organiser.
If you are planning on organizing a march, you must let the police know 6 days in advance. You will need to inform them of the date and time of the march, your proposed route and contact details of the organisers. There is information on how to do this here.
In response, the police have the right to limit or change the route of your proposed march and they may set certain conditions. They may also change the location and limit how long your rally lasts or how many people attend.
If your march becomes a sit-down protest which is blocking road traffic or public walkways, the police may order that the protest stop.
If you are organizing a protest that does not involve marching, you do not need to inform the police of your plans.
If an organizer does not comply with these requirements, any conditions imposed by the police or encourages others to not comply, they will be guilty of an offence. However, a defence is available if it can be shown that the non-compliance was due to circumstances beyond your control.
Most notably for the purposes of protesting, these powers apply to restricting gatherings of people. In enforcing these restrictions, the police may direct the gathering to disperse, they may direct an individual to return home and they can use reasonable force in removing an individual from a public place.
If an individual refuses to follow these directions, they will be seen to be committing an offence under this legislation and they may be issued a fine of £100 for a first offence. This amount will double with any subsequent offence.
The police also have the power to arrest an individual if they feel that it is necessary to maintain public health and public order.
These are non-recordable offences and even if an arrest is deemed necessary, any subsequent charge will result in a fine which will not exceed £1,000.
More generally, the police have a power to arrest an individual if they can be seen to be committing a breach of the peace. A protester therefore may be arrested and charged under the Public Order Act 1986, if their conduct involves threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress. This includes such conduct that is directed towards a bystander or an individual carrying out public service duties. While police officers can be included in this category, they must display a degree of fortitude in carrying out their duties.
National Legal Service Solicitors are a leading Criminal defence law firm in London who have an excellent track record of success in representing clients protest rights at the Police Station and through Magistrates’ Courts and Crown Courts.
If you or someone you know has been detailed for protesting, please request a free consultation or call our 24/7 emergency crime number on 020 3601 5051.
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