The Government response to covid-19: freedom of assembly and the right to protest Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The law governing protest during the pandemic

1.The regulations must be corrected to ensure that persons who have a reasonable excuse to gather, and who are therefore not committing an offence, cannot be directed to disperse or leave, or removed from the gathering. (Paragraph 51)

2.While the law surrounding protest during the pandemic has been and remains far from clear, this does not justify inaccurate and misleading communications from Government. Indeed, it demands the opposite. Public communications from Government about the law must be accurate. (Paragraph 61)

Impact on the police and public

3.Ambiguous or confusing law poses a challenge to those tasked with enforcing the law as well as those seeking to abide by it. The police should not be required to enforce laws that are unclear, as this could lead to interferences with human rights that do not have a proper basis in law. (Paragraph 66)

4.If people have to go to court to establish whether their actions are lawful or criminal, it is questionable whether the law is meeting the standards of accessibility and foreseeability required by the Convention. (Paragraph 77)

Conclusions and the way forward

5.The limited definition of a “political campaigning organisation” seems to prevent an individual from being able to protest against a private company or its activities. We assume this is not the intention and recommend that the regulations are changed to allow individuals to protest against private companies (Paragraph 79)

6.The regulations that applied in October and December 2020 confirmed that protest could go ahead subject to the organisers completing reasonable safeguards. However, during periods of national lockdown, the law became confusing and unclear. Numerous communications from public authorities implied or stated that protest was illegal, while in court Government lawyers argued the opposite. Even when properly understood, the lockdown laws leave the right to protest dependent on interpretation of the highly subjective “reasonable excuse”. This is unacceptable and leaves the public unsure of their rights, and at risk of arbitrary or discriminatory decision-making. The Government must make clearer that protest is not, and never has been, completely illegal during the pandemic—even under lockdown. The Government should amend the law to make clear that protest is permitted if conducted in a manner that reduces public health risks to an acceptable level. The model used in Tiers 1 to 3 under The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020, whereby protest is permitted where a risk assessment has been conducted and all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission have been taken, could also be applied to outdoor protests in Tier 4. (Paragraph 86)

Published: 19 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement