Thursday, 15 September 2022 — NetPol
In recent days, there’s been outrage as anti-monarchy protesters have either been arrested or threatened with arrest.
However, the arrests have also led to a lot of misinformation and alarmist statements about the law and our rights.
Firstly, protest is still legal. Whilst the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – aka the police bill – is an attempt to place restrictions on our right to protest, it doesn’t give the police the power to ban our demonstrations.
The recent arrests of anti-monarchists doesn’t amount to the death of protest and the laws that have been used against protesters aren’t those in the police bill.
This also isn’t the first time that spurious arrests have been made during royal events. In 2011, people dressed as zombies were arrested during the royal wedding while sitting having coffee. In 2002, during the Golden Jubilee, 41 people sitting in a pub were arrested. Anytime there is a royal event, the police act disproportionately to ensure that opposing voices are not heard on our streets.
So what is the law if I want to protest against the monarchy?
It’s important that we all know our rights. However, there is no guarantee that the police will follow the law at the best of times – but especially with a event like the Queen’s funeral.
Often the police do not know the law. This was evident in the arrest of Symon Hill in Oxford. Symon shouted out “who elected him?” during the proclamations announcing Charles as King. The officers who arrested him told him that it was under the new Act. In his account of the arrest, Symon stated:
“They gave me confused answers when I asked on what grounds I had been arrested… Eventually, on the way home, I was told that I had been arrested under the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act 2022 (the outrageous act passed earlier this year) for actions likely to lead to “harassment or distress”.
However, as comment to journalists confirmed, he was arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, causing harassment, alarm and distress. This is a law that’s often used by the police when they don’t like what someone is saying and is often used, for example, to arrest or threaten with arrest for swearing. Symon was subsequently de-arrested, and so far has not been charged with an offence.
However, this is a worrying sign of how the police will interpret the new legislation on the streets –deciding they can arbitrarily arrest people because they know they’ve got new powers without actually knowing what those powers are.
In London, barrister Paul Powlesland was also threatened with arrest for saying that he might write #NotMyKing on a blank piece of paper. Again, from the video, the implication is this would have been under S5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.
In Scotland, the law is different. Arrests that occurred there have been for Breach of the Peace. Breach of the Peace is a common public order criminal offence in Scotland, but is a very different offence than it is in England and Wales. For more information on the law in Scotland see the resources from the Scottish Activist Legal Project (SCALP).
A different Breach of the Peace law is used in England and Wales. This common law power is often used to remove people the police don’t like from an area. Legally this should only be used when the police reasonably believe the person is going to disturb the now King’s peace. It should contain a threat of violence and shouldn’t apply to peaceful protesters. However, as with all police powers, the police widely abuse this power.
Breach of the Peace in England and Wales is not a criminal offence – and usually the police release people when they decide the threat of a disturbance to the peace is over. Very rarely, the police take people to court. However, the only power the court has is to impose a bindover to keep the peace for a certain amount of time. This is like a fine which is payable if you are later convicted of an offence. If you refuse to sign a bindover, you can be jailed for up to six months.
You do not have to provide your fingerprints, photograph or DNA if you arrested for Breach of the Peace in England and Wales.
For more information on what laws have been used – see this excellent Twitter thread from Garden Court barrister Tom Wainwright.
What should I expect if I want to protest the monarchy?
Over the next week, it is likely that we’ll see more police harassment and arrests despite promises from the police that “the public absolutely have a right of protest and we have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place”.
If you’re taking to the streets, especially in Central London, be prepared for the police to challenge you. Ideally don’t go alone. Read up on your rights and make sure you know GBC’s key messages. Remember there’s no such thing as a friendly chat with the cops and that Police Liaison Officers (in light blue bibs) are intelligence gatherers. And you do need to be prepared for the possibility of arrest.
Remember that if you are arrested, it may not be lawful and you may be able to sue the police. The Met paid £80,000 in total to the protesters who were arrested in 2002.
And don’t forget to let Netpol know if you witness or experience harassment or disproportionate policing on the streets. You can use our encrypted form to report incidents or let us know on socials with #BullShitArrests.