Police powers / Protest / Public Order Act / Stop and search
Public Order Act: New Protest Stop & Search Powers
As the Government’s Public Order Act 2023 comes into force, we explain the new and expanded stop and search powers, and what they mean for protesters and organisers.
Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our page here or find contact details of law firms with protest law expertise on our bust cards.
**The new and expanded stop and search powers introduced by the Public Order Act 2023 (outlined below) are NOT YET IN FORCE.**
The information on this page was correct as of 3 July 2023. However, additional provisions of the Public Order Act 2023 may be brought into force in the near future. We will monitor these changes and update this (and other) pages accordingly.
The Public Order Act introduces measures that significantly increase the police’s power to respond to protests and put restrictions in place for those taking part in them.
The Government first tried to introduce many of these measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (“Policing”) Act 2022, but was unsuccessful. The Public Order Act reintroduces them.
What is the existing legal framework?
The Public Order Act 2023 builds on the existing legal framework governing the policing of protests. This is mainly contained in the Public Order Act 1986, which remains in force. Further changes to this framework were introduced by the Policing Act 2022. You can read more about these changes in our overview.
These new and expanded stop and search powers build on those that already exist under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (“PACE”) 1984, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and the Terrorism Act 2000. More information about stop and search powers more generally can be found here.
This page will focus on the changes introduced by the Public Order Act 2023.
Protest-specific stop and search powers
The Public Order Act 2023 gives the police additional powers for both suspicion-based and suspicion-less stop and search in protest settings.
Expanded suspicion-based stop and search power
The Act expands existing stop and search powers under the PACE 1984, which allows police officers to stop and search you if they have reasonable grounds to suspect you are carrying stolen goods or the following ‘prohibited articles’:
- a weapon;
- stolen property;
- something that could be used to commit certain crimes (burglary, theft, fraud, criminal damage); or
- illegal fireworks.
The new Act gives the police the additional power to stop and search you if they have reasonable grounds to suspect you are carrying something “made or adapted [or intended] for use in the course of or in connection with” the following protest offences:
- wilful obstruction of the highway
- intentionally/recklessly causing public nuisance
- obstructing major transport works
- interfering with the use or operation of key national infrastructure
- causing serious disruption by tunnelling or being present in a tunnel.
This power could apply to a very wide range of objects, including glue, bike locks, tape, rope or various tools.
New suspicion-less stop and search power
The police have the power to stop and search you without reasonable suspicion under existing powers, such as Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, or because of a Serious Violence Reduction Order.
The Public Order Act 2023 gives police the additional power to carry out suspicion-less stop and searches in relation to protest activity.
Where authorised by an inspector or a more senior officer, a uniformed police officer can carry out suspicion-less stop and searches in a particular location for a specific period, where the senior officer reasonably believes:
- the following offences may be committed in the area:
- people in the area are carrying ‘prohibited’ items – an item “made or adapted [or intended] for use in the course of or in connection with” the above protest offences;
- the authorisation is necessary to prevent people committing the above offences or carrying prohibited items.
The authorisation must apply to a specific location (no greater an area than necessary) and specific period (no longer than necessary). The senior officer must “as soon as it is practicable” inform a superintendent or more senior officer that they have given an authorisation. The authorisation can be in force for up to 24 hours and may be extended for a further 24 hours, if authorised by a superintendent or more senior officer.
The Public Order Act 2023 also creates a new criminal offence of intentional obstruction during a suspicion-less, protest-related stop and search. If convicted, you are punishable with up to one months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £1000, or both.
More information on your protest rights is available on our Advice and Information Hub, including the following pages:
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