Disability / Discrimination / Protest

Your right to protest: disabled people’s rights

What rights do disabled people have to protest? Can the police take my equipment at a protest? What can we do if the police break the law?

This page is part of a series on Disabled people’s rights, developed with Disability Rights UK (DRUK). You can read a summary of these pages, and download shorter versions too. All of them are in our disability category.

Disclaimer: this article is for general information in England and Wales. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. See our page for information on getting legal advice.

You have the right to protest without discrimination

Everyone has the right to protest. The Human Rights Act 1998 brought certain rights from European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, like

  • the right to freedom of expression (Article 10) and
  • the right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11)

The Human Rights Act 1998

Article 14 says that you should be able to enjoy all your Human Rights without discrimination. Discrimination here means treating you differently than others on certain grounds (like health and disability) without a good reason.

The Equality Act

The Equality Act also bans public authorities, like the police, from discriminating against you. It also applies to private bodies, like shops and restaurants.

Your rights under the Equality Act

No unlawful discrimination

The police are should not unlawfully discriminate against people. Under the Equality Act, discrimination means being treated worse than someone else because you have a protected characteristic. Protected characteristics include things like having a disability, which has a specific definition.

There are different types of discrimination.

  • Direct discrimination: the police shouldn’t treat you worse than a non-disabled person just because you’re disabled. This is unlawful. Direct discrimination against disabled people is never allowed.
  • Indirect discrimination: the police shouldn’t have a way of working that has a worse impact on disabled people even though it applies to everyone equally. Indirect discrimination is unlawful unless there is a good reason, or an ‘objective justification’.
  • Discrimination arising from disability: The police shouldn’t treat you worse than a non-disabled person because of something connected to you being disabled. This applies if the police know or should have known you were disabled. This is unlawful unless there is an objective justification.
  • Harassment: the police shouldn’t make you feel bad about being disabled or embarrass you because you’re disabled. This is called harassment and it is unlawful.
  • Victimisation: the police shouldn’t treat you badly or put you in a worse position because you’ve done a protected act, or the police think you might to a protected act. A protected act includes things like making a complaint under the Equality Act, or doing anything else in connection with the Equality Act. This is unlawful.

See our page on disability discrimination for more information.

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Your right to reasonable adjustments

The police have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. This requires police to take steps to reduce the negative impact their policies and ways of working can have on disabled people. This duty applies even if the police don’t know you’re disabled.

When do you have the right to reasonable adjustments?

You have the right to reasonable adjustments whenever you, as a disabled person, are put at a substantial disadvantage, compared to non-disabled people.

The police have a duty to make reasonable adjustments:

  • when they are making the policy
  • in the individual case –the police have to consider how to make reasonable adjustments to you, and not only disabled people in general.

This means that the police must have considered making reasonable adjustments when they are policing a protest. For example, if

  • the police are using any of their powers to control or manage protests, such as issuing conditions or dispersal orders
  • the police decide to use crowd control tactics, like kettling.
  • they need to confirm that you understood something.

The Public Sector Equality Duty

This duty applies when police are carrying out public functions, like enforcing the law and keeping the peace. In the context of disability, this means the police should have due regard to the following:

  1. The need to not discriminate, harass, victimise, or do anything else that is banned under the Equality Act.
  2. The need to foster good relations between disabled people and non-disabled people.
  3. The need to advance equal opportunities between  disabled people and non-disabled people. Among other things, this means the police need to take steps to meet the needs of Disabled people, and take people’s disabilities into account.

‘Having due regard’ means that the police must think about their need to do these things in a way that’s appropriate in the circumstances.

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What if I’m kettled?

Kettling’ is when the police contain protesters in one place for a long time. The police surround the people and don’t let them leave. It’s a tactic to control and manage protests.

The Equality Act and Human Rights Act as explained above still apply.

There are other specific things police should be doing if they kettle protestors.

  • Release plan: the police must have a release plan that allows vulnerable or distressed people, or those accidentally caught up in the kettle, to leave.
  • Essential utilities: If it is feasible, the police must also make essential utilities available to people who are being kettled. This includes things like toilet facilities and drinking water.
  • Time: The police cannot kettle you for any longer than is reasonably necessary to prevent a breach of the peace.
  • Necessity: the police should constantly review whether they need to keep kettling people.

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Can the police limit my right to protest?

Yes. Articles 10 and 11 are qualified rights, which means that the police can limit these rights.

This is often done by putting conditions in place. Conditions are certain limits the police put on protests. Police can also completely ban the protest in certain situations. You can read more about these in our article on how to organise protests.

However, the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act still apply. The police should:

  • consider the impact restricting protests have on your rights to protest.
  • make reasonable adjustments if necessary
  • have due regard to the Public Sector Equality Duty, including the need to take steps to meet disabled people’s needs.
  • not restrict protests in a way that discriminates unlawfully against Disabled people.

If you feel that the police have discriminated against you at a protest because you are disabled, you can complain. Skip to the bottom of this page for more information.

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Can the police take away my equipment at a protest?

In some situations, the police can seize items that they reasonably believe have been used or are likely to be used to cause harassment, alarm or distress. This is their power under Section 37 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. The police sometimes use this to take away equipment like megaphones and loudspeakers.

When can the police take things under Section 37?

If the police must already give a dispersal order under Section 35 of that Act if they want take things under Section 37. A dispersal order is when the police tell people to leave an area for up to 48 hours.

However, there are limits on when the police can give dispersal orders. The police can’t give them to you if you are taking part in a protest march and

  • the organiser has given written information about this to the police, or
  • this is the kind of march where the organiser doesn’t have to give the police written information.

You can read more about having to give the police written information about protests here.

The police might be able to issue a dispersal order if

  • you are doing a static protest (which stays in one place) with a group of people
  • you are protesting by yourself (a one-person protest)

What rules must the police follow if they take my equipment?

When police use their powers under Section 37, they must follow certain rules like:

  • communicating this to you in writing (unless they can’t reasonably do so)
  • telling you that it’s an offence if you don’t hand over the item
  • letting you know in writing when and where you can get your items back (unless they can’t reasonably do so)

The police must return your equipment to you once the period that you’re banned from the area under the dispersal order is up – unless there is another law that allows them to keep it.

If after 28 days you haven’t come to get your equipment, the police may destroy the item.

They must always consider how using Section 37 will impact your human rights.

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Can the police take away my independent living equipment?

The police shouldn’t be using Section 37 to take people’s independent living equipment. To take anything, they must follow the requirements of Section 37 explained above.

In addition, they must make sure that they have due regard to their duties to:

  • respect the public sector equality duty
  • make reasonable adjustments
  • not discriminate against disabled people.

What if the police use Section 37 in a way that discriminates against me?

There could be indirect discrimination if the police have taken away equipment and this has had a worse impact on you because you are disabled.

There could be discrimination arising from disability if there was a worse impact on you because of something connected to you being disabled.

If you think this has happened to you, you have the right to complain.

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How can I challenge unlawful police behaviour?

You can make a complaint if you think the police acted unlawfully at your protest.

There are other ways to stand up for your rights. You may be able to challenge the actions or decisions of the police using judicial review or the Human Rights Act.

Getting legal help

You might want legal advice if you’re thinking about taking legal action against the police, or if you’ve been arrested.

Our page on organising a protest has more information on legal observers, and other protest support.

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What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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