No Freedom to Protest or
assemble in the UK

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Civil protest has always been a supposed freedom that we have enjoyed in the UK. It is seen as an important and effective way of securing changes in society and generations have used it to good effect. But over the last decade or so our right to protest has been systematically eroded so that politicians now talk of peaceful demonstrations in a critical and derisive manner.

Since 1381 the law has prevented people committing a Breach of the Peace. Although only a civil law it carries a power of arrest and theoretically you can be sent to prison. More recently it has become one of the main tools the police use to prevent peaceful protest. You commit a Breach of the Peace when you commit an act which causes someone to either fear for their safety or fear that damage will be caused to their property. Fine in principle, but imagine a group of demonstrators chanting slogans outside a Council meeting. As Councillors leave they encounter the demonstrators and fear for their safety just because their is a group of people outside who are being vocal. The police want to disperse the demonstration and anyone who refuses to leave can be arrested.

Breach of the Peace has recently been widened by the courts. In 1981 people were demonstrating against the construction of an electricity generating establishment. They were arrested for acts likely to cause a Breach of the Peace and the court held that although they were unlikely to cause violence or damage, their presence could cause an employee at the site to use violence against them and they were therefore liable for the offence. This means that if you are demonstrating and anyone with an angry or violent nature is on the other side then you are at fault!

In 1932 hundreds of protestors engaged in a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. At the time this was private land owned by the landed gentry. The trespass was part of a campaign for free access to the moors for all. The trespass was entirely peaceful and it succeeded. The result was the first (and still the largest) National Park in England. Nowadays such an action would almost certainly lead to mass arrests for the offence of aggravated trespass. This offence is committed when a person trespasses on land and interferes with the lawful activity of another.

Aggravated trespass was a new offence introduced in 1994 with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. It is an attempt to outlaw hunt saboteurs. This was a bizarre piece of legislation as the stated aims of such protestors is peaceful non-violent direct action. They aim to mimic the huntsman so that they gain control of the hounds and therefore prevent the killing of wild animals. This is now illegal. The law now goes so far that if a police officer orders you to leave private land and you fail to do so then you can be sent to prison. You can even be sent to prison if you re-enter the land within 3 months! This small part of the CJA was introduced specifically to prevent hunt saboteurs continuing with their peaceful protests. It so happened that the anti-roads protests were starting in earnest and these too fell within the area of the Act.

The Public Order Act 1986 gives the police far wider powers to curb and control demonstrations. As an organiser of a demonstration you must now obtain permission from the police in advance to hold it and you can be prosecuted for failing to do so. If, while demonstrating, you do anything likely to cause a person harrasment alarm or distress then you can be arrested and charged. It may sound sensible in principle, but if you chant energetically or crowd round an entrance then you could commit an offence. Hunt saboteurs are regularly arrested for spraying lemon-based liquids on the ground and for blowing hunting horns.

Anti-Trade Union laws now mean that, although a silent picket is lawful (save of course for secondary picketting), you may no longer stand at your place of work and try to persuade other employees to join the strike. This is an arrestable offence.

The law in this country is wholly biased against peaceful protest. At virtually every stage you run the risk of arrest. And the courts, however sympathetic, have little leeway as they have to apply the law as Parliament write it. There is no written right to peaceful protest and government continues to whittle away what few freedoms are left. If you're out on a demo then be careful!

To continue onwards ...News on the latest judgment against the right to freedom of assembly

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`Implications of the CJA

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