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This briefing forms part of a series about police powers. The research briefing police powers: an introduction provides an overview of police powers and links to other relevant breifings.

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.

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