Know your rights - dispersal orders and Public Order Act section 14 conditions

Greater Manchester Police at Picadilly Gardens

As has become particularly apparent during the recent wave of environmental protests, the police are currently using two different powers to disperse demonstrators. RCG comrades up and down the country have also reported a similar experience on anti-fascist, Palestinian and other protests. Although the two measures have different histories and stated purposes, they now appear to be being used more or less interchangeably.

Imposing conditions on public assemblies - section 14 Public Order Act 1986

The Public Order Act which came into force in the mid-1980s under the government of Margaret Thatcher replaced the previous Public Order Act which had been used for the preceding 50 years.  Most of it is still in force, although there have been some amendments.

Section 14 deals with ‘public assemblies’, which in general for our purposes means any demonstration we organise or attend which is not a march. (Marches are dealt with under earlier sections of the Act.)

Under section 14, a ‘senior police officer’, who ‘reasonably believes’ that the assembly ‘may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’ or that ‘the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a 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’ can give directions imposing conditions on the event. 

These conditions, which must ‘appear to [the officer] necessary to prevent such disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation’ can only relate to the location of the protest, its duration or the maximum number of people taking part.

If the conditions are imposed on the day, ‘the senior police officer’ means the most senior in rank of the police officers present’ but if the direction is given in advance it must be ‘a chief officer of police’ who must give the direction in writing. Unlike with marches, there is no obligation to give notice to the police that you are holding a static protest; however if they are aware that you are such orders can be issued.

You can be arrested for failing to comply. Organising a demonstration and failing to comply with a section 14 order, or inciting others not to comply with it is punishable by a fine or a prison sentence of up to three months. Disobeying the order if you are not an organiser or inciter is punishable only by a fine.

Directions excluding a person from an area – section 35 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

These powers allow the police to order people to leave an area. They are not exclusive to demonstrations or public events but can be used in any public place or situation.

The current legislation, brought in by the Conservatives, replaced previous dispersal powers introduced during the Blair/Brown Labour governments (under section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 and section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003).

There are some changes to the previous powers, most notably that:

  • The period for which you can be excluded from the area has been extended to 48 hours.
  • Police Community Support Officers, as well as police officers, now have the power to use dispersal powers.
  • There is no longer a requirement to designate and publicise a ‘dispersal zone’ in advance.
  • Officers can disperse individuals without a requirement that two or more people are involved in some kind of relevant behaviour.
  • Officers can disperse individuals without firmly establish a person’s age first (as dispersal is available if the person ‘appears’ aged 10 or over).
  • In a concession forced by the House of Lords during the passage of the Act, a police officer or PCSO must have ‘regard to the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly’ set out in articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As we all know, this is a valuable point when putting forward our right to demonstrate.
  • The only specific exclusions from dispersal are peaceful trade union picketing or ‘taking part in a public procession of the kind mentioned in… the Public Order Act 1986’ (ie, the type of event for which section 14 is not applied as it is a march and you are expected to give notice in advance to the police.)

The dispersal order must be authorised by ‘a police officer of at least the rank of inspector’ who is ‘satisfied on reasonable grounds’ that it is necessary for the purpose of removing or reducing the likelihood of ‘members of the public in the locality being harassed, alarmed or distressed, or of preventing ‘the occurrence in the locality of crime or disorder’.

An authorisation for dispersal must be in writing, must be signed by the officer giving it and must specify the grounds on which it is given.

The power to order you to disperse does not include the power to demand your name and address; however, the police are ordered under the legislation to ‘make a record of (a) the individual to whom the direction is given, (b) the time at which the direction is given, and (c) the terms of the direction (including in particular the area to which it relates and the exclusion period)’.  They might logically translate this as needing for their own purposes to take your details; however you are not obliged to provide them if you are not being accused of not complying.

The dispersal powers also allow officers to compel you to ‘surrender to the constable any item in the person’s possession or control that the constable reasonably believes has been used or is likely to be used in behaviour that harasses, alarms or distresses members of the public. If the item is not criminal in itself it will be returned to you at the end of the exclusion period.  If it is not claimed within 28 days it can be destroyed.

You can be arrested for failing to comply. Failing to comply with a dispersal order is punishable by a fine or a prison sentence of up to three months. Failing to surrender an item is punishable by a fine.

Protecting your rights

The above is a guide to the law, designed to help comrades be better informed about the operation of these measures. On the day and on the ground, the decisions you take to make your political point, protect yourself from harm or unnecessary arrest, and to safeguard your comrades and fellow activists, are greatly helped by this information, but remain essentially a question of common sense and political judgment.


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