- Right to Peaceful Assembly
- Right to Freedom of Expression
- Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Right to respect for private and family life
It is important that you know your rights, know what constitutes a lawful protest, and that you recognise when authorities such as police abuse their powers. If you think the police are acting unlawfully and you do not want to risk arrest, it is advisable to comply with the police’s demands. This is not to say that all protests end in arrest but it’s good to know where you stand just in case. It is recommended that you gather evidence by use of a dictaphone or video camera. All police must at your request give you their name and police number. Should you need to you can use all this information to lodge a formal complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC): Independent Police Complaints Commission 90 High Holborn London, WC1V 6BH Tel: 08453 002 002 (local rate) Web: http://www.ipcc.gov.uk
Your conduct on protests
Generally speaking when you are on a protest, it is best just to use your common sense. It goes without saying that you should not block entrances/exits, verbally abuse anyone, swear, trespass on to private property or intimidate people. Also you must not use “insulting, abusive or threatening words or behavior” likely to cause “alarm, harassment or distress”. You are perfectly within your rights to display images to the public and display banners so long as they are not insulting, abusive or threatening. So it is perfectly acceptable to say “XXX family court hell ….” etc. It is not insulting, abusive or threatening to show images of your children. These images are factual and show the truth. You can make up protest chants and use a megaphone to get your message heard, and you can hand out leaflets to the public. You can use whistles and beat drums to draw attention to your protest. Being loud is not an offence so long as you are not doing it to cause intimidation or harassment. However please be aware that some companies used to protests my have taken out an injunction that prohibits you by law to do these things. Occasionally the police may tell you, you cannot use a megaphone, or make any noise either because it is “anti-social”, a “breach of the peace”, or because it is “threatening, insulting, abusive or disorderly behaviour”, etc, but the use of a megaphone as part of lawful protest is not a criminal offence. Justice Holland in the High Court in 2007 stated that: “Protest is lawful; the use of a megaphone as an adjunct of lawful protest is itself lawful. The starting point is unfettered freedom to engage in so much amplified protest as is neither intimidating or harassing.” HLS Group Plc v SHAC 2007 WL 919475  EWHC 522 (QB) QBD. However, if you were to shout insulting and abusive comments through a megaphone or point it deliberately in someone’s face, this would amount to an offence.
Giving your details and identification
Other than under road traffic and anti-social behaviour legislation, you do not commit an offence by refusing to give your name and address to the police. However there are certain situations where the police may arrest you if they cannot establish your name and address. The general rule to remember is that you never have to give your name and address to the police prior to arrest, subject to the following 3 exceptions: Where the police reasonably suspect you of a non-arrestable offence, and require your name and address for the service of a summons (Section 25 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)) Where you are the driver of a vehicle Where the police use Section 50 Antisocial Behaviour Act and say they suspect you of “anti-social behaviour” ay encounter
Public Order Act Section 5 – Conduct likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress
This is by far the most commonly used piece of legislation on demos; a person is guilty of this offence if (s)he: Uses threatening, abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or Displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress. The police occasionally tell activists that it is an offence under Section 5 to use a megaphone or other instrument to amplify sound. This is clearly not the case. The police sometimes threaten protesters with prosecution under Section 5 for displaying upsetting pictures of dead animals. Most animal rights placards could not be held to be insulting in the ordinary meaning of the word. This is especially so as the prosecution must also show that you intended or were aware that your conduct might be insulting.
Breach of the peace
R v Howell  defines a breach of the peace occurring: “whenever harm is actually done or is likely to be done to a person or in his presence to his property or a person is in fear of being so harmed through an assault, an affray, a riot, unlawful assembly or other disturbance.” This establishes that there must be some level of violence, threatened or actual, in order to justify an arrest for breach of the peace.
Obstruction of the highway
Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 makes it an offence to cause a willful obstruction of the highway without lawful authority or excuse. Public awareness stalls and assemblies may cause an obstruction, but the key legal point is whether or not there is a “lawful excuse” for the obstruction. If you are holding a lawful protest, running a leaflet stall, or just handing out leaflets then you can argue that you have a lawful excuse. Nowadays the courts are much more mindful of the exercise of European convention rights when deciding whether or not an obstruction has been caused.
Public Order Act Section 12 – Marches/processions
You must inform the police in advance if you intend to hold a march/procession. Notice need not be given, however, if it is not practicable to do so in advance; for example if the procession forms completely spontaneously. If this is the case a last-minute telephone call to the police is advisable to show you are prepared to follow the spirit of the law. A record should be kept of the call. Conditions can be imposed only if the senior officer reasonably believes that the procession may result in:
- Serious public disorder; or
- Serious damage to property; or
- Serious disruption to the life of the community.
The senior officer may also impose conditions if (s)he reasonably believes that the purpose of the organisers is to intimidate others. The conditions must be ones that the officer believes are necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation.
Public Order Act Section 14 – Demonstrations/public assemblies Using section 14 of the Public Order Act a senior police officer may impose conditions on your protest, but only if (s)he considers it to be reasonably necessary to prevent serious public disorder. Conditions may be imposed specifying:
- The numbers of people who may take part
- The location of the assembly, and
- Its maximum duration.
Section 14 cannot be used to ‘ban’ demonstrations! The officer must also inform you that (s)he is imposing conditions under s.14. So for example if the police have not made you aware of a section 14 notice and then arrest you for breaching its conditions, you are not guilty of an offence. There have been many cases that have been through the courts where the police have abused their powers under section 14 and unlawfully imposed conditions. If you think this has happened complain to the IPCC and seek legal advice.