As we slowly exit the Covid19 ‘lockdown’ we have seen several protests in major cities. As life moves toward a more ‘normal’ footing and we enter the Summer months, protests may continue.
In this article, we explore some of the legal powers that regulate processions and assemblies. These can be found in the Public Order Act 1986.
Notifying the police in advance
Written notice shall be given in accordance with this section of any proposal to hold a public procession intended:
(a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person or body of persons,
(b) to publicise a cause or campaign, or
(c) to mark or commemorate an event,
unless it is not reasonably practicable to give any advance notice of the procession. Notice is not required where the procession is one commonly or customarily held in the police area (or areas) in which it is proposed to be held. Similarly, a funeral procession organised by a funeral director does not require notice.
The notice must specify:
(a) the date when it is intended to hold the procession,
(b) the time when it is intended to start it,
(c) its proposed route, and
(d) the name and address of the person (or of one of the persons) proposing to organise it.
Time limits apply to the service of notices.
Where a public procession is held, each of the persons organising it is guilty of an offence if:
(a) the requirements as to notice have not been satisfied, or
(b) the date when it is held, the time when it starts, or its route, differs from the date, time or route specified in the notice.
The police can impose conditions. If the senior police officer, having regard to the time, place, the circumstances in which it is being held, its route or proposed route, reasonably believes that:
(a) it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or
(b) the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do,
he may give directions imposing on the persons organising or taking part in the procession. These conditions should be necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation. This can include conditions on the route or prohibiting entry to any public place specified in the directions.
A person who organises or takes part in a public procession, and knowingly fails to comply with a condition imposed, is guilty of an offence. However, it is a defence for him to prove that the failure arose from circumstances beyond his control.
There are similar powers for assemblies of persons.
If at any time the chief officer of police reasonably believes that, because of particular circumstances existing in any district or part of a district, the powers to impose conditions will not be sufficient to prevent the holding of public processions in that district or part from resulting in serious public disorder, he shall apply to the council of the district for an order prohibiting for such period not exceeding 3 months as may be specified in the application the holding of all public processions (or of any class of public procession so specified) in the district or part concerned.
A person who organises a public procession, the holding of which he knows is prohibited by virtue of an order under this section is guilty of an offence. The same applies to a person taking part in such a procession.
If you need any advice on the holding of mass gatherings, including how best to work with police and local authorities to ensure a successful and safe protest, please get in touch with us.
We can advise on all manner of alleged offences under the Public Order Act and other relevant legislation.
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Environmental protests across London in recent days have caused massive disruption and are set to spread across other towns and cities over the coming weeks and months.
Public protest has always been a legitimate and important part of the democratic process and is enshrined in law. But, how do the police balance the right to protest as against the rights of other people to go about their business unimpeded?
Why are people protesting?
Extinction Rebellion has organised the protests; a group concerned about the environmental destruction of our planet.
Frustrated that other attempts to force change in governmental behaviour have changed, they have resorted to a new form of peaceful protest, on its website they claim:
‘Civil disobedience works when it’s peaceful, respectful, disruptive and undertaken en masse. We don’t want to disrupt people, but our Government’s failure over the last 30 years leaves us no choice. If we had functioning democracies, we wouldn’t need to. We’ve tried petitions, marches, letters, reports, papers, meetings, even direct actions; and emissions have continued to rise. Governments prioritise the short term interests of the economic elites, so to get their attention, we have to disrupt the economy. They have left us with no other option.’
In London the protesters blocked major roads and bridges, leading to significant chaos and disruption.
What was the police response?
The Metropolitan Police set out the dilemma in this way:
‘The serious disruption the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations are causing to people in central London and beyond is unacceptable and we completely understand the concern it is causing to those who are disrupted by it.
Ultimately, the Met has a duty to balance the rights of those engaged in protest and who are acting within the law, against the needs and rights of Londoners to go about their daily lives with minimum disruption. Where people are not acting within the law we continue to arrest them, and we anticipate arrests continuing to rise. We are also working closely with partner agencies, Transport for London, British Transport Police, City of London Police, City of Westminster and the Mayor’s Office, as well as the business community.’
‘…we will have had more than 1,000 officers on the streets policing the demonstrations. This is putting a strain on the Met and we have now asked officers on the boroughs to work 12-hour shifts; we have cancelled rest days and our Violent Crime Task Force (VCTF) have had their leave cancelled. This allows us to free up significant numbers of officers whilst responding to local policing. We would also like to reassure people that we have ring-fenced the VCTF so we retain the capacity to deal with any unrelated violent incidents. However, the protesters need to understand that their demonstration is meaning officers are being diverted away from their core local duties that help keep London safe and that this will have implications in the weeks and months beyond this protest as officers take back leave and the cost of overtime.’
Was anyone arrested?
An almost unique feature of the protests to date is that people are aware of the risk of arrest and are willing to be arrested – this ironically presents an incredibly difficult policing challenge.
The police say:
‘…we have arrested more than 460 people, the large majority for breach of Section 14 [of the Public Order Act 1986) and obstruction of the highway. Of those arrested, so far eight people have been charged with those offences. At this stage it is better for us to keep our resources and custody capacity moving and flexible than leave protesters sitting in cells for up to 12 hours before going to court for what, although highly disruptive, are lower level offences. So everyone else arrested has been released under investigation and will be brought back to be formally interviewed and charged as appropriate in due course. We are aware that means some protesters immediately return to the area to resume their activities; those people will be arrested again.’ (By Saturday 20th April the number of arrests had risen to almost 800).
Will all those people be prosecuted?
This remains to be seen, but potentially thousands of contested prosecutions would place an immense strain on the criminal justice system, so many people think that those released without charge will face no further action.
Are there any legal defences to these charges?
There are several defences potentially available although the lawful right to protest peacefully is not an absolute one, and case law is generally unhelpful. There are some developing areas of legal challenge and these are the ones that defence lawyers will be concentrating their efforts on. Law is a living instrument and must develop as society responds to concerns such as the ones raised by these protestors. We anticipate that there will be a good number of legal challenges flowing from these protests.
People must, however, be prepared to face arrest, prosecution and possibly a criminal record and must individually decide whether that is a price worth paying.
How we can assist
If you need specialist advice, then get in touch with John Howey on 020 7388 1658 and let us help – if you are arrested ask for us by name, the police can contact us so that we can speak to you privately.Read More