A Crossroads: At the intersection of the right to protest and public health, which way does the law go?

July 1, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, has stated that people protesting on the streets are at risk of on-the-spot fines of upwards of £100, or even a criminal record for defying social distancing regulations. The question arises as to how compatible this approach is with protestors’ human rights.

What does this mean?

The death of 46-year-old, George Floyd, who died while being restrained by a Minnesotan police officer in May 2020, has sparked protests against police brutality and racism around the world.

In the United Kingdom, protests have been organised by campaign group Black Lives Matter (BLM), as well as Stand up to Racism and various grassroots campaigns, attracting upwards of 137,500 protesters during the first weekend of June. Many of these protestors held up placards highlighting hate crimes that have occurred in the UK, including the deaths of Belly Mujinga, Shukri Abdi, Sarah Reed, Edson Da Costa, Mark Duggan and many others.

In the House of Commons, Home Secretary Priti Patel stated that any large gatherings were “unlawful”. Echoing Patel’s statement, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick stated that officers faced with large gatherings would seek to uphold the law (in this case the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020), making a “case-by-case decision[s]”.

Although there is no specific reference to protests in the Regulations, Reg 7 restricts public gatherings to six people. Gathering is then defined as a meeting involving “social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity”. It seems clear that protesting in groups would constitute a gathering and therefore an offence would be committed under the Regulations. This puts the population of the UK’s fundamental rights at risk.

What's the big picture effect?

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) incorporated Articles 2-12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law in the UK. The HRA sets out fundamental rights and freedoms that citizens of the UK are entitled to and forces public bodies to respect these rights. The HRA also gave citizens recourse to the British Courts on such matters (rather than the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg).

Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR state that public bodies (i.e. bodies carrying out public functions) must respect the right to express one’s views and the right to assemble respectively. However, these two rights are qualified which means that they sometimes need to be balanced against the rights of the wider community. This means that it is lawful for a public body to limit either of these rights if it has a legitimate aim for doing so, such as in interests of public safety (Article 10(2) ECHR) or for the protection of health (Article 11(2) ECHR). 

Despite the potential legal problems, stars including Star Wars actor John Boyega and England footballer Raheem Sterling have expressed support for the protests, with the latter stating that the protests are justified because racism is a deadly disease itself. But this is not to say that organisers have not been conscious of the government’s concerns. Protest groups in Leeds and in various other towns have undertaken socially distanced protests (although this would not necessarily make them legal). There are further alternatives too, many have been donating to Black Lives Matter UK, which, within a week of launching a fundraising drive, raised more than £750,000.

Although it remains to be seen how readily the police will exercise their powers under the Regulations, what is clear is that highlighting racial inequality has never been more important. Whether protesting in the street or donating to causes online, there are numerous impactful ways for people to show their support.

Report written by Keir Galloway Throssell

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