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Current law

Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights 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, protect the public’s safety, or protect the rights and freedoms of others.

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 restrict protests by placing conditions on them. These powers were strengthened by part 3 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

On 2 May 2023 the Public Order Act 2023 received Royal Assent. The 2023 Act established several criminal offences in relation to protest, including offences of causing serious disruption by locking-on, being equipped to lock-on, causing serious disruption by tunnelling, obstructing major transport works, and interfering with key national infrastructure.

There is also an array of criminal offences which are not specific to protest situations but could apply to conduct committed during the course of a protest, such as wilful obstruction of a highway, public nuisance, and aggravated trespass.

Civil routes

In addition to the relevant criminal law there have been several examples of businesses and organisations seeking out civil injunctions (court orders) against protesters to stop them from engaging in protest activity that effects their operations.

Part 2 of the Public Order Act 2023 sets out a legislative framework for a new type of court order called a Serious Disruption Prevention Order (SDPO). At the time of writing the relevant provisions of the 2023 Act have not yet been brought into force, therefore SDPOs do not have legal effect. SDPOs are civil orders that will enable courts to attach conditions or restrictions on an individual aged over 18 (such as restrictions on where they can go and when) with the view of preventing them from engaging in protest-related activity that could cause disruption. Breach of an SDPO will be a criminal offence.

Debate about recent legislative reform

In recent years, there have been several high-profile and large-scale protest events that have sought to cause disruption by targeting major roads, transport networks, and other infrastructure. These sparked two major reforms in 2022 and 2023 to the legislative framework for policing protests: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act 2023. Both were aimed at increasing the powers of the police to intervene and stop disruptive protests and strengthening the criminal justice response to those engaging in disruptive protest tactics.

The direction of recent legislation has been controversial and attracted strong opposition from campaigners who have questioned the compatibility of the recent reforms with human rights legislation. The Joint Human Rights Committee raised concern that the combined measures will “have a chilling effect on the right to protest in England and Wales” (PDF). 

However, in the Government’s view, the balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of individuals to go about their daily business was not being struck fairly. It said more needed to be done to “protect the public and businesses from [the] unacceptable actions” of “a small minority of protestors”. The Government argued that existing human rights legislation provides appropriate safeguards for the right to protests and that the police and prosecutors will continue to be responsible for acting “compatibly with an individual’s Convention rights” (PDF) when making any decisions about arrests and charges.

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