UK: Everything you need to know about the law change to highway obstruction

Friday, 22 July, 2022 — Netpol

Protests sitting in the road by a police line at DSEI arms fair

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has changed the law on highway obstruction.

With campaigners regularly arrested for blocking roads, it is essential everyone knows about these changes and what they mean.

The maximum penalty for highway obstruction was previously a fine but now it is an imprisonable offence, with a posible sentence of up to six months in prison.

While it is likely that first time offenders will still receive either low fines, or absolute or conditional discharges, this escalation in sentencing powers means it is likely that we will start seeing increased penalties, especially for repeat offenders. However, sentencing guidelines reflecting the new punishment have not yet been published.

Making highway obstruction an imprisonable offence is, however, about more than just jail time.

Obviously, sending campaigners to prison for sitting in a road is extremely draconian and the experience of incarceration is always grim. However, the possibility of a custodial sentence is not the only concern that people need to consider if they are risking arrest or are arrested for highway obstruction.

The change in the law now makes highway obstruction a recordable offence. This means that the police can take, by force if necessary, fingerprints, photographs and DNA from people arrested for it.

This also means that highway obstruction will now show up in Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and will potentially need declaring when applying for some visas and some insurance policies.

The increased severity of the charge will make it more likely the police and the courts will to try and remand detainees in custody. This is especially relevant for protests such as the week-long action called by Extinction Rebellion in September 2022, when people are likely to be repeatedly arrested for highway obstruction over successive days. The grounds for refusing bail include the likelihood of committing another offence whilst on bail and a realistic chance of a custodial sentence. This could apply in some cases.

An increased penalty of up to six months means it is also possible for the courts to impose community punishments. These could include community service (undertaking unpaid work) or a curfew monitored by an electronic tag.

It is now easier to receive a conviction for highway obstruction

The other change to the legislation means that it no longer matters if the road was already obtructed when you blocked it. In the past, you could, for example, argue that the police were already blocking the road – or something else was happening that meant the road was already closed. This will now not be admissible as a defence.

Protest is not illegal!

It is easy to feel scared with the amount of repressive legislation that this government has introduced. But it’s important to remember that, despite its best efforts, protest is not illegal and we still have (for now) Article 10 and 11 defences against possible charges.

So keep taking action, keep challenging these powers and let Netpol know if they are used against you or you witness them being used.

However, we all also need to feel that we are empowered when participating in protests and have informed consent about what we could face by risking arrest. Knowing our rights and the potential implications is a big part of our ability to Defend Dissent on the streets.

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