Protest rights

Baffling new bureaucracy puts protest at risk, warns Liberty

Posted on 07 Aug 2020

Latest coronavirus regulations have created a web of convoluted and confused rules which would pose a serious risk to protest and protestors everywhere

  • Red taping the right to protest is the latest attack on our freedom of association
  • Sweeping new powers mean Government ministers can create protest-free zones
  • Liberty calls for protest exemption to ensure rights are upheld

Human rights organisation Liberty has warned that the latest coronavirus regulations have created a web of convoluted and confused rules which would pose a serious risk to protest and protestors everywhere.

Under regulations released last month, organisers have been set a host of bureaucratic hurdles before they are permitted to protest in groups of more than 30. Many are unfathomable, even to legal experts.

Liberty believes the new powers could make lawful protest incredibly difficult – and put anyone exercising their democratic right to protest at risk of arrest.

The regulations, which have been in force since 4 July, set out new restrictions on gatherings in public places, including a requirement for organisers to carry out a health and safety risk assessment.

But Liberty has warned that the risk assessment is impossible to meet because:

  • It is a workplace assessment which makes no legal sense when applied to a protest
  • There is no guidance on how a protest organiser should manage risk, or what a proper assessment looks like
  • No information has been provided on how assessments will be monitored

This means that anyone attending or organising a protest could find themselves at risk of arrest because it is impossible to know if a satisfactory risk assessment has been carried out.

Despite the significant restrictions the new regulations place on all our civil liberties, the Government has made little effort to tell people about the changes. They are also only the latest coronavirus powers to be rushed through with minimal parliamentary oversight or scrutiny.

Liberty has called on the Government to amend lockdown regulations to establish an explicit exception to any rules on gatherings for people to exercise the right to protest.

Throughout the pandemic Liberty has produced legal ‘Know Your Rights’ advice guides on how coronavirus laws and regulations affect protest.

Rosalind Comyn, Liberty policy and campaigns officer, said:

“These convoluted and confused rules could be used to clamp down on protest across England – putting people at risk of arrest for exercising their rights. Protest is how we speak truth to power, tackle injustice and demand our rights. That’s why we should be alarmed by any heavy-handed or blanket restrictions – even those introduced under the guise of protecting public health.

“This is because times of crisis are always seen as ripe for ripping up rights and stripping back civil liberties.  This has happened here, not only with these regulations but with the sweeping powers held in the Coronavirus Act. This legislation could limit many of our rights indefinitely, including protest – the latest indication of this Government’s long-held contempt for dissent. Now more than ever we must safeguard this right so we can continue to highlight injustice and stand up to power.”


Along with Northern Police Monitoring Group, Black Protest Legal Support, StopWatch, Black Lives Matter UK, The Monitoring Group and London Campaign Against Police and State Violence, Liberty has produced and distributed know your rights 24,000 ‘bust’ cards to protests around the country. This includes 3,000 for the Black Lives Matter protests this weekend, and digital versions to be circulated online.

Liberty has also criticised the recent lockdown regulations for stifling protest by:

  • Allowing police to take “any action necessary” to enforce the new rules – putting organisers at risk of surveillance should officers demand information about protests in advance
  • Only allowing public gatherings held by certain types of organisation – overlooking things like community gatherings to commemorate a death
  • Granting the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care powers to create restricted areas which people cannot enter without a “reasonable excuse” – which might be used to effectively ban protests
  • Being drafted in a way which is confusing and inaccessible – making it even harder for people attending or organising a protest to know what is or is not lawful

Recent years have seen a host of threats to the right to protest, including but not limited to:

  • The Met police wrongfully banning Extinction Rebellion protests in London
  • Extinction Rebellion being listed as an extremist ideology by counter-terror police
  • Logos of a number of organisations including Greenpeace, Peta and other non-violent groups included in a Prevent counter-terror guide alongside neo-Nazi symbols
  • Wide ranging injunctions which are preventing protest across the UK by making it a criminal offence in certain area
  • Disproportionate charges and sentences which have gone far beyond fair consequences for people’s actions

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