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Restricting your right to protest: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2019-2021

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On 16th March 2021, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons. The Bill has already caused controversy within the media, particularly in relation to the restrictions it seeks to bring in, in respect of how members of the public can exercise their right to protest.

The Government Policy Paper states that ‘the measures in the Bill will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public.’

Whilst this may come as a welcome measure to some, following the mass disruption that was caused by the Extinct Rebellion protests last year, what many feel has been overlooked by the Bill, is the point that a core purpose of protests are to cause some form of disruption. This is because it is often only when such disruption is caused, that the wider public and more importantly, the Government, are forced to take notice and listen to the issues being raised.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, commented that:

Ever since the first large-scale Extinction Rebellion protest in April last year I have been talking publicly and with the government about the potential for change to powers and to legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests in general given that the act that we work to – the Public Order Act – is now very old, [dating to] 1986. But specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt and were prepared to use the methods we all know they did to do that.”

The key concern is raised by Dame Cressida Dick herself, that the protests being targeted by this legislation, are those that are in fact, not violent nor particularly disorderly. If a protest is neither violent nor disorderly, then it is by definition a peaceful one, and if it is peaceful, it should be protected as a fundamental Human Right, regardless of how much disruption it may cause.

Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression, this right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.’  Article 11, also states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others’.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Policy Paper Fact Sheet insists that the proposed new measures will not undermine ‘freedom of expression’ as this is “a cornerstone of British democracy and the majority of protests in the England and Wales are lawful and will be unaffected by these changes”. It goes on to say that “these measures will balance the rights of protesters with the rights of others to go about their business unhindered. They will achieve this by enabling the police to better manage highly disruptive protests”.

However, once again, the point is being missed that the more disruptive a protest is, the more successful it is as a protest and as a movement that is supported by a very large group and therefore, perhaps the more its message should be listened to, rather than silenced.

Another objection raised within the Commons was over proposals in the Bill to make defacing statues and monument punishable by up to 10 years in jail, following the spate of statues that were defaced during the Black Lives Matter protests. A series of Labour MPs noted that it would make it theoretically possible for someone to be more harshly punished for this than for rape, suggesting that, despite the Bill’s intentions to better assist the police in managing large public disturbances, its priorities may be misguided.

If you are arrested or charged with a Public Order Offence, Johnson Astills' Crime Team can assist to provide you with advice, assistance and representation in respect of this. You can contact us on 0116 255 4855 or fill out an online enquiry form and a member of our team will be in touch shortly.