Is This Criminal Justice?
Everyone in the United Kingdom has the right to protest and organise protests under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Public Order Act 2023 (POA 2023) was introduced to respond to the changing challenges in modern society to ensure that the law can effectively handle the complexities of maintaining public order. The act recognises the right to freedom of expression but emphasizes that this right should not disrupt public order.
POA 2023 builds on measures introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (PCSA 2022). PCSA 2022 aimed to uphold the right to protest while preventing disruptions that can infringe on the rights of other individuals. POA 2023 provides police with a range of new policing powers and has also introduced new offences.
POA 2022 has introduced a clear definition ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’. This includes the act of locking on, which is where someone attaches themselves to others or a structure. This also includes the act of tunnelling which is where individuals create underground tunnels to cause disruptions. Individuals engaged in protesting activities such as locking on and tunnelling can now face legal consequences for causing a serious disruption to public life.
PCSA 2022 introduced increased sentences for crimes such as criminal damage to memorials. POA 2023 expands on PCSA 2022 by providing harsher penalties for protests causing serious disruption to communities.
Some critics have argued that POA 2023 may limit someone’s ability to exercise their rights and that the statute does not protect or facilitate peaceful protests. Some critics have also argued that the definitions of the new criminal offences are vague and impose unnecessary criminal sanctions on people organising and/or taking part in peaceful protests. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed his concerns that the legislation is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s international human rights obligations regarding ECHR Article 11, the freedom of assembly and association and ECHR Article 10, freedom of expression.