Under the Human Rights Act everybody has a freedom of expression and a freedom of thought and assembly. This means that everybody has a right to a peaceful protest and no restrictions shall be placed on this unless it is in the interests of national security, public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime or for the protection of health.
However, there are some offences that are commonly linked to protesting, these are:
- Aggravated trespass:
This offence is committed if a protestor or group of protestors trespasses on land and disrupts a lawful activity, intimidates a person engaged in lawful activity or tries to deter them from carrying out that lawful activity.
For example, if a group of protestors trespasses on land where genetically modified crops are being grown, whilst the farmer is on the land, then they commit the offence of aggravated trespass.
Penalty - imprisonment and/or fine.
- Wilfully obstruct the highway:
This offence is committed when there is an obstruction of the highway (the slowing down or stopping of vehicles). The obstruction must be wilful (not accidental) and there must be no lawful excuse for the obstruction. Lawful excuse would include express permission or situations where the obstruction is fleeting and limited in terms of space.
For example, if a group of taxi drivers are protesting over the price of petrol and are driving slow through a city centre during rush hour traffic.
Penalty - a fine only.
- Trespassory assembly:
This offence is committed when a notice pursuant to section 14 of the Public Order Act has been served on the organiser of an event and that person still goes ahead and organises the event, or when a person incites others to take part in the event, or when a person takes part in the event.
To serve such a notice, the senior police officer must believe that the event may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property, disruption to community life or that the purpose of the event is to intimidate others into not doing an act they have a right to do, or into doing an act they have a right not to do.
Penalty - imprisonment and/or a fine.
- Breach of the peace:
This is a common law concept used by police officers to prevent unlawful violence against people or property. To commit a breach of the peace, harm must be done or be likely to be done to a person, or in his presence to his property. It can also be committed whenever a person is in fear of being harmed through an assault, affray, riot or any other disturbance.
For example a group of protestors have gathered in the middle of a town centre and are chanting and becoming very rowdy and abusive causing the shoppers to fear that they will be harmed in some way.
Penalty - to be bound over to keep the peace for a specified amount of time.
- Prohibited activities in controlled areas:
There are protest restrictions in the controlled areas of Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster. Peaceful demonstrations are allowed but the use of amplified noise equipment and the erection of tents is prohibited.
Penalty - a fine.