Across the news we have seen a number of protests that have taken place around the UK covering a range of topics, whether it be race discrimination or global warming. The fundamental human right of the ability to have freedom of speech is one that every person deserves, but when this leads to chaos, disruption and dangerous outcomes of ambulances being blocked from arriving to emergencies, something needs to be done. The UK has had a history of erratic protests taking place, but what really seemed to push the protests to a new limit were the demonstrations displayed by the group Insulate Britain towards the end of 2022. This forced the Government to create an Act in which the key issues faced within society could be aided in being resolved, including the ability to manage protests across the country. The aim would be to strike the key balance between allowing individuals to express their own ideas and thoughts whilst maintaining a sense of control and preventing laws being broken, wider disruption being caused to the general public and increased costs to public funds.
What are the changes to the law?
The new Act will widen the polices ability to make an impact on ensuring protestors express their views in a manageable manner. This new Act now has provisions that:
- Enable the Police to have a wider range of conditions that they can impose on public assemblies alongside their existing power to impose on processions. Explicitly speaking, this will now allow the Police to monitor protests by setting start and finish times alongside controlled noise levels.
- Broaden the range of circumstances in which the police can impose conditions on a protest – example: a single person protest where there is serious disruption to others.
- Increased maximum penalty for the offence of wilful obstruction of a highway -increased from £1000 to an unlimited fine and/or 6 months imprisonment.
- Amend the offence relating to the breach of conditions – an offence can be committed now where a person “knows or ought to have known” that the condition has been imposed.
- Restate the common law offence of public nuisance in statute – providing clarity to the police and potential offenders of what conduct is forbidden.
- Ensure vehicular entrances to the Parliamentary estate remain unobstructed.
- Introduce expedited Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) – local councils can make an PSPO near school and sites providing vaccination / test and trace services.
What about human rights and free speech?
The Home Secretary has also delegated power to further define what is declared as serious disruption and to provide increased clarity as to how the police can use their powers via secondary legislation. When Police use these powers given to them, they will need to take into account: who is impacted, the number of people impacted, the duration and intensity of the impact and the human rights of protestors and of those impacted.
However, the Act has had a fair amount of criticism across the UK. The CEO of Amnesty International UK Sacha Deshmukh said: “The Policing Bill is part of a hugely worrying and widespread attack on human rights from across Government which will not only see basic rights reduced across the board, but will also strip people of the means to challenge or contest their treatment.” The Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has also described the legislation as “rushed” and will create “incredibly widely-drawn” powers, which will allow the police to “stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including passers-by, people on the way to work and peaceful protesters”.
How can our criminal lawyers help?
Will the police use this as an opportunity to abuse powers and prevent freedom of speech for both peaceful and turbulent protestors? Or will raging protests effecting the public finally be controlled whilst preserving the fundamental human rights of each individual. This is now a waiting game to see what series of events will unfold due to this Act, and how protests will be handled.
If you are looking for legal advice or are unsure of your legal position because of the changes to the law, you can contact our expert criminal defence lawyers who can help you. We offer a free initial consultation on all legal matters and can be contacted via video consultation.