Your precious right to protest

06 May 2011

Author: 
James Welch, Legal Director

With the Government’s austerity measures beginning to kick in, protest and the authorities’ response to it is becoming an even bigger issue for Liberty. Much of our concern is focused on police heavy-handedness (kettling, pre-emptive action to prevent embarrassing protests) but what about circumstances when the police are too “light-handed” and refuse to provide any support to protesters?

Over the last couple of years we have been contacted on several occasions by people organising protest marches. As required by section 11 of the Public Order Act 1986 they give notice of the march to the police, only to be met with a response that the police won’t be doing anything to assist the protesters. In all cases this has been coupled with a suggestion – sometimes made by the police, sometimes by the local authority – that the organisers both need to apply and pay for temporary road closure orders and should take out public liability insurance.

Liberty would encourage anyone organising a march to give as much notice to the police as possible and to expect a certain amount of negotiation with the authorities.  Responsible march organisers will also want to recruit and train their own marshals and may well want to cover themselves against any claims by taking out insurance. But the authorities go too far in suggesting that this is somehow a requirement; we cannot see how the police – and it is only the police that can impose conditions on marchers under section 12 of the Public Order Act – could impose this as a condition.

We also doubt whether a march organiser is entitled to apply for a temporary road closure order. The obvious power under which such an order could be made only applies to sporting or social events or other entertainments held on the street. A political protest is clearly something different.

Our view is that, if someone organising a march has given the proper notice to the police, then in the absence of any conditions imposed by the police in the limited circumstances provided for in section 12 of the Public Order Act, they are entitled to go ahead with it as planned. If this means that the police and local council have to take measures themselves to ensure that the demonstration can pass off safely, then so be it. The police and town hall bureaucrats certainly shouldn’t be obstructive, trying to dissuade people from exercising their democratic right to protest by suggesting that it is all too difficult.

In the cases that we have dealt with the authorities have always backed down and allowed the marches to go ahead – with appropriate police support – when we have reminded them of their obligations under the Human Rights Act to respect and even facilitate peaceful protest. If you find yourself meeting a similarly obstructive approach as you organise your demonstration, get in touch with us.