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High Court Strikes Down Extended Police Powers Over Protests as Unlawful, Celebrated as ‘Victory for Democracy

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High Court deems expansion of police authority on protests illegal

Activists celebrate a "triumph for democratic values" following a judicial ruling that the Home Office's effort to redefine what constitutes "serious disruption" is illegal.

Political correspondent @fayebrownSky

Tuesday, May 21, 2024, 3:

The High Court has determined that the government's effort to reduce the criteria for police involvement in demonstrations was illegal.

The advocacy organization Liberty initiated a lawsuit against the Home Office, challenging the protest rules that were enacted last year through a statutory instrument.

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The criteria defining "serious disruption" to community life have been relaxed, shifting from "significant" and "prolonged" to merely "more than minor."

They also permitted law enforcement to consider "any relevant cumulative disruption" caused by ongoing demonstrations.

Liberty described the Supreme Court's decision as a "significant triumph for democratic principles."

Officials had previously attempted to implement these reforms during the passage of the Public Order Bill in parliament, but they were initially turned down by the Lords, with a vote tally of 254 against 240 in favor.

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The decision to reinstate the measures through a statutory instrument, a process that undergoes less examination than primary legislation, drew criticism when it was introduced but was ultimately approved last year.

"Major triumph for democratic principles"

During a court session in February, attorneys representing Liberty requested that the High Court invalidate the "illegal" measure.

In a decision made on Tuesday, a pair of judges sided with the organization, determining that the Home Office exceeded its authority when it lowered the threshold and did not conduct an adequate consultation process.

Lord Justice Green and Mr Justice Kerr stated: "In common and straightforward terms, 'more than minor' does not fall under the definition of 'serious'."

After the verdict, Akiko Hart, the director of Liberty, stated, "This decision represents a significant triumph for democracy and establishes a crucial benchmark indicating that the government must operate within the bounds of the law."

"Every individual is entitled to voice their opinions on matters they care about, and it's crucial for the government to honor this right."

Parliament initially dismissed these perilous powers, but they were surreptitiously reintroduced, aimed explicitly at silencing protesters who were not in favor with the government. The language used was so imprecise that it effectively granted the police expansive authority to dissolve any protest.

"This ruling underscores the importance of accountability and emphasizes that leaders must make choices that honor our rights."

Further Reading: What are the new regulations for protests? Individuals scaling war monuments risk imprisonment.

Home Office 'disheartened'

A spokesperson from the Home Office expressed their disappointment with the result.

The rules were sanctioned during Suella Braverman's tenure as Home Secretary.

She contended that the modifications would enhance clarity for law enforcement, stating to Members of Parliament in June 2023: "Individuals have the right to commute to work punctually without hindrances, the right to experience sports events uninterrupted, and the right to access medical facilities without delay.

"The streets are public property, owned by the citizens of the UK, not just a few individuals who act as though they have exclusive rights over them."

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Ms. Braverman was dismissed from her position following her characterization of pro-Palestinian demonstrators as "hate marchers" and her criticism of the Metropolitan Police for permitting a rally on Armistice Day. She expressed these views in a piece for The Times, which had not been approved by Prime Minister Sunak's office at Number 10.

She is now advocating for the authority to be granted to ministers to completely prohibit demonstrations.

At the February hearing, attorneys representing Liberty argued that the process of establishing the regulations was marked by a biased and unjust consultation that only involved a limited circle of stakeholders, such as the Metropolitan Police and the National Police Chiefs' Council.

In their 57-page decision, the judges stated that consultations must be conducted fairly, emphasizing that "fairness demanded a balanced rather than a biased approach, and the method followed was unjust."

Sky News reached out to Ms. Braverman to request her comments.

Stay informed with the most recent updates from the UK and international news by tuning into Sky News.

Broad initiatives introduced to restrict demonstrations

The decision was announced on the same day that the government's consultant on political unrest recommended comprehensive actions to suppress demonstrations. These included requiring protest leaders to contribute to policing costs and considering a reevaluation of covert monitoring of protest organizations.

Lord Walney advocated for significant reforms to "safeguard our democratic principles against threats," proposing measures like a comprehensive prohibition on face masks at demonstrations and simplifying the process for businesses or individuals to seek compensation from protest groups that create disturbances.

He is also urging the government to think about establishing designated protest-free areas around the offices of Members of Parliament and local council chambers, similar to the protections proposed for certain abortion clinics.

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In his comprehensive 292-page analysis, he noted that although the far right poses a larger risk of violence, law enforcement agencies lack sufficient information about "the extreme left."

Home Secretary James Cleverly stated he would thoughtfully review the suggestions made by Lord Walney.

Regarding the High Court's decision, a spokesperson from the Home Office expressed, "Although the verdict is not what we hoped for, we are gratified that an appeal is allowed, and we will explore every possible alternative to maintain this crucial authority for the police."

The ability to demonstrate is a critical element of our democratic system, yet it's equally important to safeguard the rights of law-abiding citizens to carry on with their everyday activities.

"This is the reason we passed legislation last year to equip law enforcement with the necessary resources to manage disruptive demonstrations."

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