The 2021 Police Bill and older laws

Submitted by martin on 12 April, 2021 - 11:05 Author: Martin Thomas
Criminal Justice Bill protest

The 2021 Police Bill demonstratively limits the right to protest. But the movement against it should also be aware of, and consider expanding its horizons to take on, limitations already introduced in 1986, 1994, and 2011, and usually, so far, used only cautiously by the police.

Below, I've compiled some sketch notes from material readily available on the web. I hope someone else is able to build on these notes for a fuller and better-legally-informed survey.

Clauses 54 and 55 of the current Police Bill expand police powers in Section 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 under which a senior police officer may impose conditions on public processions and assemblies to bring them into parity with one another. Previously, a senior police officer could only impose the following three conditions that alter a) the place at which an assembly could be held b) its maximum duration or c) the maximum number of persons who constitute it.

The distinction between Section 12 and 14 recognised the difference in impact of static protests, as well as the ease with which police might be able to facilitate a static, rather than moving protest.

The changes erode that necessary distinction, allowing an officer in England and Wales to impose any condition “as appear to him necessary”. These unlimited conditions would mean that a senior police officer could ban a static protest altogether.

Clauses 54-55 and 60 subsection 2 introduce “noise generated by persons taking part” as a reason to warrant police-imposed conditions if that noise “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity” and also, for static assemblies and marches, if that noise “may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity […] and that impact is significant.”

The Bill amends Section 12 and 14 to establish an offence where someone breaches a police-imposed condition on a protest where they “ought to have known” the condition existed.

The Bill increases the criminal sanctions for an organiser who strays from police-imposed conditions from maximum 3 months to a maximum 11 months’ imprisonment.

Clause 57 of the Bill amends Part 3 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 which constitutes controlled areas around Parliament where particular activities cannot take place. The Bill expands the controlled areas that constitute the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster to include Canon Row, Parliament Street, Derby Gate, Parliament Square and other roads within the district of Victoria Embankment, as well as expanding the activities prohibited in the above places.

"Public nuisance" is at present a "common law" offence, i.e. one defined by court precedents rather than an explicit law ("statute") passed though Parliament.

Clause 59 of the Bill would restate the common law offence of public nuisance in statute.

In the explanatory notes that accompany the Bill, the offence is said to be intended to target conduct “such as hanging from bridges.” But the wording of the offence is far wider and includes “any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public” or “that obstructs them in the exercise of rights belonging to the public.” Nearly all protests may "obstruct" the public, so protestors may be charged with an offence risking up to 10 years imprisonment.

Clause 46 of the Bill would amend the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 [so] that the court is no longer restricted to the maximum sentence of 3 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,500, based on the monetary value of a "memorial" (e.g. statue) damaged in a protest. Instead, courts may issue the maximum penalty under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 of 10 years in prison.

Part 4 of the Bill would establish a criminal offence for trespass and introduce new police powers to arrest offenders in situ and seize any vehicles or other property immediately. This would affect ad hoc protest camps.

The 2011 law

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 repealed the provisions in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which prohibited protests near Parliament Square, and instead restricted certain "prohibited activities" in Parliament Square garden and the adjoining footways.

SOCPA 2005 had restricted the right to demonstrate within a "designated area" of up to one kilometre from any point in Parliament Square. It required demonstrators to give written notice to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police six days in advance, or if that was not reasonably practicable then no less than 24 hours in advance.

The Public Order Act 1986

Section 11 - advance notice of public processions - required at least six clear days' written notice to be given to the police before most public processions, including details of the intended time and route, and the name and address of at least one person proposing to organise it. It created offences for the organisers of a procession if they do not give sufficient notice, or if the procession diverged from the notified time or route

Section 12 – imposing conditions on public processions- gave police the power to impose conditions on processions "to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community".

Section 13 – prohibiting public processions - gave a chief police officer has the power to ban public processions up to three months by applying to a local authority for a banning order, with subsequent confirmation from the Home Secretary.

The POA 1986 did abolish the common-law offences of riot, rout, unlawful assembly and affray, and offences under the Tumultuous Petitioning Act 1661 and the Seditious Meetings Act 1817, so just repealing it is not the answer; but its conditions on protests should be abolished.

The whole Labour Party voted against it on second reading, including Tony Blair.

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

Part V covered collective trespass and nuisance on land and included sections against raves and further sections against disruptive trespass, squatters, and unauthorised campers – most significantly the criminalisation of previously civil offences. This affected many forms of protest including hunt sabotage and anti-road protests.

There were big demonstrations against it, and left Labour MPs opposed it vigorously.

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