Legal Advice

Protests and Marches

letting the police know:

  • By law you must tell the police in writing 6 days before a public march if you’re the organiser.
  • Tell the police the: date and time of the march, route, the names and addresses of the organisers
  • limit or change the route of your march
  • set any other condition of your march

If you arrange a march at short notice, you must still tell the police as soon as you can.

The police can also:

  • change the location
  • limit how long a rally lasts
  • limit the amount of people who attend
  • stop a sit-down protest if it blocks road traffic or public walkways

If there’s no march involved:

  • If there’s no march organised as part of your protest, you do not have to tell the police.

How to make a freedom of information (FOI) request:

You have the right to ask to see recorded information held by public authorities. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) give you the right to see information.

If you ask for environmental information, your request will be handled under the Environmental Regulations (EIRs) or Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EISRs). Environmental information includes things like carbon emissions or the environment’s effect on human health.

You do not need to tell the organisation which law or regulations you’re making your request under.

You can request information from some public authorities, such as:

  • government departments, devolved administrations, other public bodies and committees
  • local councils
  • schools, colleges and universities
  • the NHS – including hospitals, GPs, dentists, pharmacists and opticians
  • publicly owned companies
  • publicly funded museums, galleries and theatres
  • the police and fire services
  • registered social landlords in Scotland

You can make an environmental information request to private or public companies that have public responsibilities – like water companies.

If you’re not sure if the organisation is one you can make a request to, check with the information commissioner for:

  • Scottish public authorities – you can search on the Scottish Information Commissioner’s website
  • England, Wales or Northern Ireland and organisations that cover the whole of the UK – contact the Information Commissioner’s Office

How to make an FOI request:

You must make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in writing. You can do it by:

  • letter
  • email
  • social media
  • online form – check the organisation’s website or the government department’s page to see if they have an online form
  • fax

If you cannot make your request in writing because of a disability, contact the public authority. They should help you to make the request another way – for example over the phone. You can ask for environmental information in writing, in person or by phone.

You might not need to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request if the organisation has:

  • already published the information
  • previously responded to an FOI request

Check their website for responses to previous FOI requests. This is sometimes known as a ‘disclosure log’. You can search for published responses to FOI requests from government departments, agencies and arms length bodies.

You can also email or phone the organisation to ask if they’ve already published the information or responded to an FOI request.

You should give in your request:

  • your name (not needed if you’re asking for environmental information)
  • a contact postal or email address
  • a detailed description of the information you want – for example, you might want all information held on a subject, or just a summary

You can ask for information in a particular format, such as:

  • paper or electronic copies of information
  • audio format
  • large print

The organisation should send you the information within 20 working days of receiving your request. Some schools are allowed more time during school holidays. In Scotland, you should allow 6 extra days if you send your request by post. The organisation will tell you when to expect the information if they need more time.

If you’ve sent an FOI request to several government departments, they may share your name and request between them. This is to help deal with your enquiry more effectively. No other details will be shared and your information will not be used for any other purpose. Most requests are free but you might be asked to pay a small amount for photocopies or postage. The organisation will tell you if you have to pay anything. Check the copyright status of information you receive if you plan to reproduce it.

If your request is turned down:

Some sensitive information is not available to members of the public. If this applies, an organisation must tell you why they cannot give you some or all of the information you requested. They might ask you to be more specific so they can provide just the information you need.

An organisation can also refuse your Freedom of Information (FOI) request if getting information will cost more than £450, or £600 if the organisation is:

  • a government department, Parliament or part of the armed forces
  • the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Welsh Assembly
  • based in Scotland

An organisation can refuse your request for environmental information, if they think the cost of getting the information is too high.

Reviews and complaints:

If an organisation does not provide you with the information you requested, you should first ask them to review their decision. If you’re not satisfied with the organisation’s response, you can complain or appeal to the information commissioner for:

  • England, Wales or Northern Ireland and organisations that cover the whole of the UK – complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office
  • Scottish public authorities – make an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner

[information from https://www.gov.uk/browse/justice/rights]

Police Powers

policing protests:

> Current Law: 

The right to peacefully protest is protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention protect an individual’s right to freedom of expression and assembly. Together they safeguard the right to peaceful protest. However, these rights are not absolute, and the state can implement laws which restrict the right to protest to maintain public order.

In the UK several pieces of legislation provide a framework for the policing of protests. The Public Order Act 1986 provides the police with powers to place restrictions on protests and, in some cases, prohibit those which threaten to cause serious disruption to public order. There is also an array of criminal offences which could apply to protestors, for example “aggravated trespass” or “obstruction of a highway”.

In addition to relevant criminal law there are civil remedies that can be used to disrupt protests. Provisions in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 allow individuals and organisations to apply for civil injunctions to prevent protestors from demonstrating in a way which causes harm or harassment.

>Reform to police tactics in the early 2010s:

Following criticism of the police’s approach at the G20 protests in 2009 there was reform of policing tactics at protests. The police were criticised for their use of force and for not facilitating constructive dialogue with the G20 protestors. Partly in response to this criticism, the current police guidance emphasises that officers should start from a presumption of peaceful protests. It advocates for the use force only as a last resort and advises officers to maintain open communication with protestors before, during and after a demonstration.

>Debate about the future of policing protests:

Recent protests have raised some questions about the current framework for policing demonstrations. Some have argued that police powers against protestors should be strengthened. Stronger legislation, it is argued, could enable the police to intervene more robustly against peaceful protests that cause lengthy and serious disruption.

Others have questioned whether legislation which seeks to restrict harmful speech (harassment and offensive language) is strong enough. When and how the police should intervene against protestors who use offensive language has been controversial in the past. Many civil rights groups argue that the use of harassment legislation against protestors presents a risk to the freedom of expression. Others argue that when protestors use offensive language, they can cause significant distress to their target and civil and criminal action should be taken against them.

[information from https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn05013/]

What are our basic rights to protest?

Freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully are protected by both the common law and the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) as implied in Article 10 (the Right to Freedom of Expression) protects a right that’s fundamental to our democracy – freedom of expression – which means that we’re free to hold opinions and ideas and to share them with others without the state interfering. Article 11 (the Right to Peaceful Assembly) of the Human Rights Act 1998, meanwhile, allows for peaceful protest to take place without disturbance from authorities – unless of course any act of hostility or violence were to take place. Knowing the restrictions and the law placed upon peaceful protest can ensure that the message of your protest is heard and is made clear.

What are the rules around organising a protest?

When you are planning a protest, you do not necessarily need to inform the authorities (see point regarding marches above). Doing so, however, could prevent unnecessary trouble or difficulties arising on the day.

The police can impose conditions such as the maximum number of people and the duration of the protest. But the police can only do this if they believe these conditions are required to prevent public disorder or damage to property.

Police are more likely to be co-operative if they have good warning in advance of what to expect, and if they have a clear point of contact amongst the organisers of the protest. It is also more likely to reassure them that those organising the protest have made adequate considerations to make sure everything goes smoothly.

It may also turn out that you need a permit to protest in the area in which you wish to protest. For example, notification to the police will also always be required if the demonstration takes place around Parliament. Failing to gain this permit beforehand could lead to your protest being shut down, so it is worth contacting the police to find out whether you will need one.

Note, however, that any communication you make with the police could be used against you in court if the police decide to charge you for organising an illegal demonstration.

Can the police stop my protest?

The police do have powers under the law to impose restrictions on planned protests. However, these restrictions are unique to each case, and your rights give you the option to appeal against any restrictions that the police attempt to make on your protest.

If you believe unfair restrictions have been placed on your protest, or the protest has been banned from occurring altogether, you may be able to make a case on one of three grounds:

The decision-making process behind the restrictions was unsatisfactory. For example, if false or assumed information was factored into the decision;

The restrictions would contravene the right to protest given to all under the ECHR. For example, if police decided that the message behind the protest was too unsavoury to be allowed, violating Article 10;

The decision is otherwise completely unreasonable or irrational. For example, a schoolboy organising a protest against the closure of his local library, and having it banned by police for fear of a violent outbreak of public disorder.

Police can only place restrictions on a protest or demonstration if they have reason to believe that it will result in property damage, disruption of the community, or serious public disorder. Judicial challenges against these restrictions can only be made at the High Court. The restrictions may be imposed too late for a judicial challenge to be possible, and if you choose to go ahead with the protest in spite of these restrictions, you or your fellow protesters could find yourself placed under arrest.

However, if charges are brought against any protesters and it is found that the restrictions supporting those charges were unreasonable, charges would be dropped and the arrested protesters could be awarded compensation. Going ahead with your protest on this hope is very risky, and it is worth considering the rescheduling of your protest, or at least seeking legal advice.

Other to points to consider include:

  • Peaceful protest can only take place on public highways;
  • Security guards have no right to move protesters unless the property is on their grounds;
  • Assembling on private grounds without the owner’s permission will be seen as trespassing.

What about stop and search powers?

Contrary to what you might believe, police powers to stop and search are the same at a protest as they are anywhere else. Police can only stop and search an individual if they have reasonable cause, and being present at a protest does not constitute reasonable cause.

The law says that you can only be searched if a police officer has a reasonable belief to suspect that you may be carrying something illegal or something that can be used to commit an offence and you are likely to do so. This forms the grounds of the search.

There are two exceptions to this rule, which are known as blanket search powers:

  • If a section 60 search power has been granted (Criminal Justice Act).
  • If a section 47A search power has been granted (Terrorism Act).

The police often use a piece of law known as Section 1 of PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984). Using this power, you can be searched for the following items, provided that there is reasonable individual suspicion:

  • Articles for burglary/theft;
  • Stolen goods;
  • Offensive weapons;
  • Bladed articles; or
  • Items that may be used to commit criminal damage.

There are other specific laws that allow an officer to search you. They include the power to search for drugs or explosives, and along with Section 1 PACE, always require reasonable suspicion.

Blanket search powers, meanwhile, give the police the ability to search large groups of people, with no reasonable suspicion. They are used a public events such are protests, carnivals and sports games, and are put in place by a senior police officer. There are two blanket search powers that you might come across:

  • Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act 1994 – This power allows a police officer to search anyone in a specific area for offensive weapons. The order lasts for 24 hours but can be extended.
  • Section 47A of the Terrorism Act 2000 (Remedial) Order 2011 – This power allows a police officer to search anyone where they reasonably suspects that an act of terrorism will take place, and that the power is necessary to prevent it from occurring. This allows the police to search anyone or anything for the purpose of prevention of terrorism, and replaces the controversial section 44 (TA2000) after it was found to be incompatible with Article 8 by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Information from:
https://www.daslaw.co.uk/blog/right-to-peaceful-protest

For more complete guidance on organising protests, see:
https://peopleandplanet.org/system/files/resources/Your_Right_To_Protest_-_A_guide_for_protestors(1).pdf