The continued erosion of our protest rights and how we will respond
The summer of 2020 saw numerous protests on a wide range of issues by people from a variety of backgrounds. There were clashes between police and protestors and challenges to the appropriateness of policing tactics. For example, London Met police were found guilty of breaching the rights of organisers who planned a vigil for Sarah Everard, and the Colston 4 were found not guilty of criminal damage for toppling the colonial statue of Edward Colston. The recent implementation of legislation aimed at restricting the right to protest has emerged in direct response to protest tactics taken by social justice groups and activists. Recent laws and bills target tactics and actions deployed by BLM groups and climate action groups, including Extinction Rebellion, HS2 Rebellion, and Insulate Britain campaigners.
On the 28th of April, 2022, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2022 (previously known as the Policing Bill or PCSC bill) was passed into law, despite strong objections by parliamentarians and civil liberties groups about the extent and scope of such a direct attack on the right to protest. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (commonly called the Policing Act) introduces a raft of new legal definitions that dictate what is allowed and not allowed at a protest. It also introduces new penalties for protest. The headlines of how the new Policing Act affects protest include:
- further restrictions on protest marches and assemblies, including provisions for noise,
- restricting one-person protests,
- expanding the legal and geographical definition of ‘controlled areas’ to prohibit organisers from protesting in certain areas,
- penalties for obstructing access to Parliament,
- penalties for causing public nuisance (including up to 10 years in prison),
- penalties for obstructing highways,
- and most alarmingly, really serious punishments, including time in prison, for participating in certain types of actions at a protest.
Liberty offers an in-depth look into what the changes are to our right to protest. They point out that this new law is incredibly alarming because of the vague way it has been written, which means that it can be interpreted in lots of different ways. For example, a noisy protest can be classed as a ‘serious disruption’, but what exactly is considered ‘serious’ and ‘disruptive’ is not set out clearly in the law. The danger of this is that the police will be able to cherry-pick how they will apply many parts of this new law.
There has been widespread concern about the impact and disproportionate harm that the Policing Act will have on individuals and communities that already experience discrimination and marginalisation. These laws risk compounding policing practices that discriminate against communities who are already treated unequally, unfairly, and stereotyped by the criminal justice system.
These concerns come at a time of increased erosion of the laws protecting fundamental rights that lie at the heart of democratic life. The Public Order Bill currently making its way through parliament, the recently passed Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and potential legislation to replace the Human Rights Act 1998, all threaten to weaken our fundamental rights protections and further erode the right to protest and to express dissent.
As this new and complex legislation comes into force, Law for Life has begun work to develop an information campaign that aims to ensure proper understanding of the laws, their impact, and effective routes to legal help for protestors. We will continue to work closely with local and grassroots community groups working in the areas of environment, disability, housing, racial justice, and GRT groups.
We will be releasing articles and press releases at key stages of the campaign and as the bills make their way through Parliament.
Our Resources to support protest section provides a one-stop resource for activists, community groups, and protestors, wanting to understand the law and what the issues are around it.
We look forward to working with the Liberty Advice and Information team to develop resources to support your protest rights.
We also want to extend thanks to Big Brother Watch, Liberty, Netpol, Garden Court Chambers, and Hodge Jones & Allen. They have been invaluable supporters in strategy, resource development, and knowledge sharing.
We want to extend our gratitude for the generous financial support of our funders, particularly the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Their support will enable us to develop a campaign that directly challenges the most detrimental provisions of the Policing Act.
We look forward to developing this campaign in partnership with Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). Their experiences and insight will help us to create training opportunities, resource guides, and breakdowns of the new laws to equip organisers, campaigners, and protest attendees with the information to make informed decisions and actively question and challenge improper enforcement of the new law.
We also invite you to tell us what protest support and resources you require.