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Demonstrations and What you Need to Know about the Law


The Summer of our Discontent

Demonstrations are an important part of our democratic tradition. They reflect the strength of popular feeling on a given issue. The aim of those taking part is that a large number of marchers and the speeches will persuade others to support their cause.

Everyone has been off the streets staying out of the way of Covid 19, but the recent killing of George Floyd in America has brought a lot of people out. As Britain now tries to find a ‘new normal’, there will be plenty on people’s minds and the normal pattern of demonstrating may resume.

The best marches are the ones without lawyers! But it is worth knowing what legal powers there are to regulate processions and assemblies. They are mainly found in the Public Order Act 1986.

Notifying the police in advance – section 11

Written notice shall be given to the local police station of any proposal to hold a public procession intended (a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person or body of persons (b) to publicise a cause or campaign, or (c) to mark or commemorate an event, unless it is not reasonably practicable to give any advance notice of the procession.

The notice must specify the date when it is intended to hold the procession, the time when it is intended to start it, its proposed route, and the name and address of the person (or of one of the persons) proposing to organise it. Time limits apply to the service of notices.

Notice is not required where the procession is one commonly or customarily held in the police area (or areas) in which it is proposed to be held or is a funeral procession organised by a funeral director acting in the normal course of his business.

Where a public procession is held, each of the persons organising it is guilty of an offence if the requirements as to notice have not been satisfied, or if the date, time or route differs from what is specified in the notice.

Police Conditions – section 12

The police can impose conditions. If the senior police officer, having regard to the time or place at which and the circumstances in which any public procession is being held or is intended to be held and to its route or proposed route, reasonably believes that (a) it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or (b) the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do, then he or she can give ‘directions’.

The directions may impose on the persons organising or taking part in the procession such conditions as appear to the officer necessary to prevent such disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation, including conditions as to the route of the procession or prohibiting it from entering any specified public place.

Note that these directions do not actually have to be given in advance, but can (for example) be given if some emergency arises during the march.

A person who organises a public procession, or takes part in it, and knowingly fails to comply with a direction is guilty of an offence, but it is a defence to prove that the failure arose from circumstances beyond his or her control.

There are similar powers (in section 14) to regulate static assemblies of people such as pickets or open-air public meetings.

Prohibiting Processions – section 13

If at any time the chief officer of police reasonably believes that, because of particular circumstances existing in any district or part of a district, the powers to impose conditions will not be sufficient to prevent the holding of public processions in that district or part from resulting in serious public disorder, he or she shall apply to the council of the district for an order prohibiting (for such period not exceeding 3 months as may be specified in the application) the holding of all public processions (or of any class of public procession so specified) in the district or part concerned.

A person who organises a public procession in the knowledge that it is prohibited by virtue of an order under this section is guilty of an offence. So is any person taking part in such a procession.

Behaviour on the march

‘Being on a demo’ does not provide a blanket defence for criminal behaviour (!). Prosecutions tend to be for minor public order and damage offences and the normal rules of evidence apply.

We can advise on all manner of alleged offences under the Public Order Act and other relevant legislation and have particular expertise concerning all aspects of the law relating to protests and the right to free speech and assembly.

How can we help?

If you need specialist advice, then get in touch with our Crime Team on 0151 480 5777 or email and let us help. We can advise on a plea, defences and potential sentences in a wide range of circumstances.

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