This briefing paper provides an overview of the current legislation and guidance relevant to the policing of protests, commentary on recent changes in this area and a discussion about calls for further reformJump to full report >>
The right to peacefully protest is protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention protect an individual’s right to freedom of expression and assembly. Together they safeguard the right to peaceful protest. However, these rights are not absolute, and the state can implement laws which restrict the right to protest to maintain public order.
In the UK several pieces of legislation provide a framework for the policing of protests. The Public Order Act 1986 provides the police with powers to place restrictions on protests and, in some cases, prohibit those which threaten to cause serious disruption to public order. There is also an array of criminal offences which could apply to protestors, for example “aggravated trespass” or “obstruction of a highway”.
In addition to relevant criminal law there are civil remedies that can be used to disrupt protests. Provisions in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 allow individuals and organisations to apply for civil injunctions to prevent protestors from demonstrating in a way which causes harm or harassment.
Policy makers and the courts have long tried to balance the right to protest with a desire to maintain public order. During the first decade of the 2000s the legislation was strengthened in favour of public order. However, following criticism of the police’s approach at the G20 protests in 2009 there was reform to public order policing tactics. The police were criticised for their use of force and for not facilitating constructive dialogue with the G20 protestors. Partly in response to this criticism, the current police guidance emphasises that officers to start from a presumption of peaceful protests. It advocates for the use force only as a last resort and advises officers to maintain open communication with protestors before, during and after a demonstration.
Recent protests have raised some questions about the current framework. Some have argued that police powers against protestors should be strengthened. Stronger legislation, it is argued, could enable the police to intervene more robustly against peaceful protests that cause lengthy and serious disruption.
Others have questioned whether legislation which seeks to restrict harmful speech (harassment and offensive language) is strong enough. The extent to which the police should intervene against protestors who use offensive language is a polarising subject. Many civil rights groups have argued that the use of harassment legislation against protestors presents a risk to the freedom of expression. Others argue that when protestors use offensive language they can cause significant distress to their target and civil and criminal action should be taken against them.