When the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill (now Act) (the Police Act) was first published, there was a lot of talk and outrage surrounding the provisions that curtailed ‘noisy’ protests. This latest Insight will explore why in light of the Bill of Rights currently making its way through Parliament, noisy protests are the least of an animal activist's worries.
What does The Police Act say about protests?
The Police Act has introduced sweeping changes that drastically curtail protests, such as police imposing more conditions on static protests, including start and finish times and setting noise limits. In addition, both marches and static protest will be conditioned on whether they involve noise that may cause serious disruption or if the noise has a “relevant impact” on persons in the vicinity that may be significant. The noise generated in a protest could amount to a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity if it “may result in the intimidation or harassment of persons of reasonable firmness” or if “it may cause such persons to suffer alarm or distress.”
Previously, if the police wanted to restrict a protest they had to show that it may result in "serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community."
At one point it looked as though some of these more onerous restrictions would be removed from the then draft Bill, after the Lords voted against them. However, the House of Commons ignored the Lords amendments and they made it into the Act.
What about nuisance?
Unlike the rules surrounding protests, the changes to the nuisance laws did not receive the same scrutiny; however, they are no less draconian and present a serious risk to animal campaigners and activists.
The offence of public nuisance has been broadened to: intentionally or recklessly creating a risk of or causing serious harm to the public or a section of the public, or obstructing the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large. “Serious harm” means death, personal injury or disease, loss of, or damage to, property, or serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity.
There is a defence available for a person charged with the offence of nuisance if they can prove that they had a reasonable excuse.
This is a vast broadening of the previous law. Firstly, there no longer needs to be intention to commit a nuisance, just recklessness. It is also enough to prove an offence has been committed if you simply cause serious annoyance or inconvenience or damage to property that does not need to be serious. In addition, no one has to suffer anything, there just needs to be the risk of suffering it. Its scope has also been broadened to include nuisance to “a section of the public” rather than the current requirement of “the public.” This offence carries a maximum sentence of ten years.
What does this mean for animal campaigners and activists?
How this new Act will be used in practice remains to be seen, but one such example could be a ban on using a megaphone to describe the treatment of animals.
The far reaching nature of the public nuisance offence runs a serious and very real risk of curtailing currently lawful activities that cause serious annoyance to animal industries. The hope will be that one is able to rely on the “reasonable excuse” offence, although that remains to be seen.
Is this against Human Rights?
One of the reassurances given by the Government as the Police Act passed through Parliament, was that it would be compatible with protestors human rights. To some extent this may be true, after all public bodies, including the police and the courts, must act in accordance with The Human Rights Act, where freedom of expression is enshrined and applies to activities, such as protest and undercover investigations.
This is all well and good, but this reassurance lasts as long as The Human Rights Act, which as fate would have it is currently in the early stages of being repealed by the Government and replaced with the Bill of Rights.
Whilst the Government is claiming that under the Bill of Rights, freedom of expression (known as freedom of speech under the new Bill) will be strengthened, this has been called a false narrative by campaigners.
One such example of weakening this protection is that under the current draft, freedom of speech/expression is not protected during criminal proceedings. This means if you are charged for activities during a protest, or for causing a nuisance to an animal industry, you would not be able to argue that all you were doing was exercising your right to expression.
In the Human Rights Act, which gives effect to the Convention on Human Rights, freedom of expression was not an absolute right, but rather it was balanced against limitations necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This difference under the draft Bill of Rights is that it no longer requires that the limits be necessary, but rather your freedom of expression is lost completely if you are subject to criminal proceedings, even if you ultimately win.
The reassurance that human rights would temper the Police Act may turn out to be nothing more than a temporary appeasement, if this fundamental safeguard is removed.
What can you do?
Ask your MP to ensure freedom of speech/ freedom of expression provisions in the Bill of Rights, as a minimum, mirror the previous protections under The Human Rights Act.
This is not legal advice. If you’re an animal advocate, organisation or charity and think that these changes may affect your work it is vital to seek expert advice at the earliest possible stage. For more information on the services Advocates for Animals offers please contact firstname.lastname@example.org