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10. Police powers to regulate processions and assemblies

10.1 Sections 12 and 14 Public Order Act 1986

If you engage in regular protest you will inevitably encounter the police’s use of Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986.

Section 12 Public Processions

This confers power on 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.

Anyone who knowingly fails to comply with a condition is guilty of an offence.

Section 14 - 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. But 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.

On most big animal rights demos these days there is a Section 14 notice in place, which gives the location where the assembly may and may not take place, and the time at which it must finish. It does not usually specify the number of people who may take part.

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

Anyone who knowingly fails to comply with a condition is guilty of an offence.

Frequently asked Questions on Sections 12 and 14

Doesn’t there need to be more than two people to form an assembly?
Not any more. Section 57 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill 2003 amended Section 16 of the Act to reduce the numbers of people necessary to form an assembly from twenty to two. This amendment was introduced after intensive lobbying by the police and the pharmaceutical industry for more powers to be available to deal with animal rights protests where less than twenty people were present. They finally got what they wanted, so activists can expect even more widespread use of Section 14 in the future.

What is a “public place”?
Section 16 of the Act states that a public procession or assembly is one which takes place in a public place. It defines what is meant by “public place” as follows: any highway, or any place to which the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission. This therefore includes supermarket car parks and garage forecourts for example, to which the public has “implied permission” to enter.

When can I be arrested?
Offences under sections 12 and 14 are only punishable by a fine. Breach of Section 12/14 is not, therefore, an “arrestable offence” under Section 24 PACE, and there is only a very limited statutory power of arrest namely where a constable in uniform reasonably suspects you of committing the offence. As the offences are not “arrestable”, you cannot be arrested after the offence has been committed (eg the next day) and if you are arrested your house cannot be searched.

Does a Section 14 or 12 notice have to be in writing?
A Section 14 or notice only has to be in writing where it is issued in advance by the chief constable of police. It does not have to be in writing when it is issued at the time of the assembly by the most senior officer present.

Who is the “senior officer”?
The powers conferred can only be exercised by the “senior officer”. The identity of the senior officer depends on the nature of the procession. If it is an advertised march or assembly and a Section 12 or 14 notice is issued in advance, then it can only be exercised by the chief constable of police and it has to be in writing. But in the case of impromptu marches or processions, where there is no advance notice, then the power must be exercised by the senior officer present at the scene and does not have to be in writing.

A notice is invalid if issued by the wrong officer. For example, in 2002 police officers arrested some animal rights activists for assembling in Derby town centre, contrary to a Section 14 notice. On the day in question the activists had taken the police by surprise, as the advertised assembly was elsewhere in the neighbouring county. This meant that no advance Section 14 notice had been issued to control the assembly in Derby on that day. A section 14 direction was then issued to deal with the protestors in Derby. However this was not issued by the senior officer at the scene, but by a more senior officer based at the police headquarters. This meant that the Section 14 notice was issued illegally and all of the activists were subsequently acquitted

Can I be arrested if I have not been told about the conditions?
It is an offence knowingly to fail to comply with one of the Section 12 or 14 conditions. So it would be a defence to say that you had no actual knowledge of the conditions – eg because you had not been told or, in the case of a notice issued by the chief constable, there was no written notice.

The police sometimes use a megaphone to issue a Section 14 notice at the scene of an assembly, Activists arrested for breach of Section 14 are often subsequently acquitted because they simply could not hear what the police were saying and therefore had no knowledge that a Section 14 notice was in existence.

What if I am marching, can the police still use Section 14?
No they can’t, they would have to use Section 12, which governs marches. The police sometimes wrongly seem to think that Section 14 gives them the power to outlaw any form of protest other than the assembly on the day in question. In April 2003, the police in Cambridgeshire attempted to use Section 14 to control a march - and failed. On the day in question, there had been an advertised demonstration at Huntingdon Life Sciences. A Section 14 was issued here, and this stated amongst other things that no other assemblies could take place anywhere in the county. Some activists marched that day through Cambridge town centre, another town within the same county. They were stopped by the police from marching, then arrested for assembling contrary to the Section 14, which had been issued at Huntingdon. The case was eventually dismissed when it was shown that the only reason why they were assembling was because they had been forced to do so when stopped by the police. They had been attempting to march and this was not a failure to comply with the Section 14 direction.

Were the conditions legal?
The police can only impose conditions, which are authorized by the statute. So for example, where an assembly is taking place, the police cannot impose a condition stating that you cannot blow whistles or bang drums. Such a condition would be unlawful, and you could not be convicted for failing to comply with this condition. However, the presence of one such unlawful condition does not in itself invalidate the entire Section 14 notice.

According to a recent High Court case, the police cannot impose conditions under Section 14 as to the route protestors take to and from an assembly, nor can they restrict the numbers of people who may leave the assembly at any one time. The police often include a condition in a Section 14 notice nowadays that you cannot assemble anywhere in the entire county other than the area they have designated. Although this point has yet to be decided in court, we believe that such conditions are unlawful, as the power only exists to regulate a particular assembly.

Is Section 12/14 compatible with my human rights
As with all legislation, the police must not issue conditions, which are incompatible with your fundamental right to protest. Any condition imposed must be “proportionate” to the harm – i.e. serious disorder etc – which the police are seeking to prevent. If, for example, the police sought under section 12 to divert a procession planned to go through a city centre to the outskirts of the city, you could argue in court that this amounted to a denial of your right to freedom of expression as it was not necessary to divert the march to prevent disorder. If the judge agreed, this would render the Section 12 direction unlawful and any failure to comply with such an unlawful direction would not be a criminal offence.

This article is for information purposes only; its aim is to let people to know their full rights under UK law. Nothing on these pages is absolute as the law is always changing; if in doubt contact a trusted solicitor for further advice. We do not encourage you to break the law.

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© Copyright freeB.E.A.G.L.E.S.; last updated: February 2004