Is it legal to protest in the UK?
It is legal to protest in the UK, and the right to protest in England and Wales is protected under the European Convention of Human Rights.
However, it is important to note that this legal right only applies to peaceful demonstrations, and does not extend to any acts of violence or damage caused during a protest.
The right to protest is not unconditional and can be limited in certain circumstances, such as when a protest or assembly is deemed to threaten public health. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘lockdown’ rules restricted the right to protest by making it an offence for groups to assemble.
The police can also impose conditions on protests if they believe that:
- The protest could cause significant public disorder, property damage, or disruption to the life of the community
- The purpose of the protest is to intimidate others and prevent them from exercising their lawful rights.
The conditions placed on protests can vary and are determined by the police in order to prevent this behaviour.
In addition to these conditions, the government has recently been introducing additional restrictions on the right to protest. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Bill both have a significant impact on the organisation of protests and demonstrations.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was introduced by the Conservative government in April 2022.
The act is far-reaching and covers a wide range of topics, including police powers, sentencing, and protest laws.
The act has been met with criticism, including from civil liberties campaigners and environmental activists, who argue that the new protest laws are too restrictive and infringe on the right to freedom of expression.
One of the most controversial aspects of the 2022 act is the new powers it grants to the police. For example, it allows police officers to place more conditions on protests and demonstrations, including imposing start and finish times, location restrictions, and maximum noise levels.
It also makes it easier for police to use stop and search powers, allowing them to search individuals without reasonable suspicion in specific locations.
For the first time, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act gives examples of what might amount to ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’.
- Significant delay to the delivery of a time-sensitive product to consumers of that product.
- Prolonged disruption of access to any essential goods or services, such as money, food, water, energy, or fuel.
Ministers now have more power to stop protests
The act enables UK government ministers to create new regulations without the need to go through the Houses of Parliament for approval. It also gives ministers the power to make regulations that alter or expand the definitions of ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’ and ‘serious disruption to the activities of an organisation’.
Ministers having this executive power could have widespread implications for protesters. For example, the government being able to change definitions would allow them to redefine ‘serious disruption’ at will.
New restrictions on static demonstrations
Before the 2022 act, the law differentiated between protest marches (moving protests) and static demonstrations (protests in one place).
Previously, the police could only enforce the strictest of conditions on protest marches – for example, banning the protest from taking place.
Regulations for organising static demonstrations were less strict, recognising that these protests usually create fewer disturbances and are simpler for the police to handle. The police could only set limited restrictions on the location, duration, and the number of people attending a static demonstration.
However, under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, static demonstrations are now treated the same as protest marches, so the police can impose the same strict conditions on location, duration and attendance numbers. Some conditions could have the same effect as a complete ban, such as:
- Preventing a protest from taking place in certain areas
- Only allowing the protest to last for a very short duration
- Restricting the protest to a very small number of people.
Is it legal to block a road for a protest?
The ‘wilful obstruction of the highway’ is a criminal offence. The Highways Act 1980 defines this as ‘a person without lawful authority or excuse in any way wilfully obstruct[ing] the free passage along a highway’. It’s worth noting that a ‘highway’ doesn’t just refer to main roads, but any public road, including residential streets.
This means that blocking a road for a protest is illegal unless you have advanced permission or lawful authority.
The Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act has made the penalty for this offence significantly more severe.
The maximum sentence is now up to 51 weeks in prison or an unlimited fine, or both. The previous sentence was a fine not exceeding £1,000.
Public Order Bill
The 2022 act is not the only piece of legislation that gives sweeping powers to police and other authorities.
The controversial Public Order Bill is receiving final amendments from parliament before becoming law.
The government wants to give police the power to stop and search people without suspicion, near to a protest. The proposed legislation would also allow the police to arrest people on the suspicion of causing a protesting offence, such as causing a public nuisance.
Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPO)
The bill also introduces Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPO). These will allow courts to place prohibitions or requirements they consider necessary to prevent an individual from causing ‘serious disruption’.
Such measures may involve prohibiting an individual from entering a specific place, congregating with certain individuals, possessing particular items, or using the internet to encourage an individual to commit a protest-related offence.
Breach of a SDPO will carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
Our position on protest rights
Thompsons has a long history of standing up for the right to protest, going back to the very first cases run by the firm in the 1920s.
Conservative governments have always sought to restrict the right to protest, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and Public Order Bill are the latest examples of a UK government criminalising a fundamental human right.
Thompsons Solicitors stands shoulder-to-shoulder with trade unions and civil rights campaigners in opposing these authoritarian laws being introduced by the government.