Marches, Assemblies and Notice of Protest

The Public Order Act 1986 defines a march or moving protest as a ‘procession’ and a static gathering as an ‘assembly’. The difference is important because the police have more powers to control a procession than an assembly.

An organiser of a procession must notify the local police a minimum of six days before a proposed procession or protest march. That notification should inform the police of the date and time of the march, the route, and give the names of the organisers. Police then have the power to limit the march, change the route, or set any other condition they feel is appropriate.

By contrast, an assembly is subject to fewer controls and organisers of assemblies for protest need not necessarily notify the police in advance of their intention to organise an assembly.

In both circumstances it is normal for there to be close liaison with police in order to agree a route and conditions and make arrangements for stewarding and policing. In such an event it is important that those taking part comply with what has been negotiated as maintaining the public’s trust and support is essential.

Section 12 of the Public Order Act: Public Processions
S12 of the Public Order Act gives power to the senior officer to impose conditions on processions, which he reasonably believes are necessary to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community. He may also impose such conditions if he believes that the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with the 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.

If he reasonably believes any of the above, then he may impose conditions on persons taking part in the procession as are reasonably necessary to prevent the above, including conditions as to the route of the procession or prohibiting it from entering any public place specified in the directions.

Conditions can be imposed in advance, or by the senior police officer who is at the scene. The law states that conditions can be imposed ‘as they appear necessary to prevent serious disorder, disruption of the life of the community, or intimidation’. This is a fairly wide remit which would likely give the police powers to restrict protest on the basis that the life of the community is not disrupted.

These laws give the police power to move you, using force if necessary, in order to comply with conditions.

Section 14 of the Public Order Act: - Public Assemblies
As with Section 12, the senior officer may impose conditions on public assemblies, which he considers are reasonably necessary to prevent serious public disorder etc. Unlike Section 12, the conditions he may reasonably impose are in this case limited to specifying:
a) the numbers of people who may take part,
b) the location of the assembly, and
c) its maximum duration.

An assembly is defined by Section 16 of the Act as consisting of two people or more.

Breaches of conditions:
Anyone who organises or takes part in a demonstration and knowingly fails to comply with a condition as set out under section 12 or 14 of the Public Order Act will be guilty of an offence, and this can be grounds for arrest. It is also an offence to incite another to commit these offences.

It is a defence to prove that the failure to comply arose from circumstances out of your control.  In order to be convicted of an offence under section 12 or 14, it must also be proved that you were aware of the conditions.

Organisers found guilty under sections 12 and 14 are liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale or both.
Individuals taking part (in a non-organising capacity) found guilty under sections 12 and 14  are liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

Individuals found guilty of incitement are liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale or both.

Therefore individuals who are not organising the procession/ assembly but aware of the conditions imposed upon it would be liable to prosecution. However, if they are not aware of the conditions then they would not be guilty of offences under s12 and 14 of the Act.  

Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986 - Banning a march
There is a power under section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986 to ban marches outright. A Chief Constable can only decide to do this if he/she has grounds to believe that imposing conditions will not be enough to prevent the march leading to serious public disorder. His/her decision must also be approved by the local council (unless the march is in London) and, in all cases, the Home Secretary. If a ban comes into force it applies to all marches in the area for the duration of the ban. This power is used infrequently.

Obstruction of the Highway
Another police power to be aware of is Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 which prevents you from ‘wilfully obstructing the free passage along a highway without lawful authority or excuse’. This police power is often used to remove demonstrators who are standing outside buildings, sitting down blockading entrances or roads and in many public order situations.

You could be committing this offence if, without lawful authority or excuse, you wilfully obstruct the free passage of the highway. The ‘highway’ includes the road, the pavement, grass verges and private property used as a public thoroughfare. Ignoring the police’s stipulations for the protest could constitute this.

‘Obstruction’ includes anything that prevents passing and re-passing along the highway. You do not have to be blocking the whole width of the highway. The offence is obstructing the highway itself, not other highway users, so it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that anyone was actually obstructed.

The obstruction has to be ‘wilful’, so you will often be asked to move by the police, and if you do not, then this could be used as evidence of your ‘wilful’ obstruction in court.