Kill the Bill Protests: An Ironic Tale

The controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, 2021 is set to go to the Committee Stage in the coming week. It is expected to be back in the House of Commons by 24 June 2021. The protests to kill the bill have been rampant in the cities of Birmingham, Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle etc. with the latest one in Central London on 1 May 2021. The Bill aims to impose very strict regulations and penalty on protests that the police deem disruptive to the public. The discretionary powers in the hands of the police to decide what constitutes disruptive is troublesome, scary and prone to misuse.

Kill the Bill Protests: An Ironic Tale

What just happened?

The controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, 2021 is set to go to the Committee Stage in the coming week. It is expected to be back in the House of Commons by 24 June 2021.[1]The protests to kill the bill have been rampant in the cities of Birmingham, Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle etc. with the latest one in Central London on 1 May 2021.[2]The Bill aims to impose very strict regulations and penalty on protests that the police deem disruptive to the public. The discretionary powers in the hands of the police to decide what constitutes disruptive is troublesome, scary and prone to misuse.

What does this mean?

Clauses 54 and 55 of the Bill amend Sections 12 and 14 respectively of the Public Order Act, 1986 giving the police power to place conditions on the right to public processions and assemblies, and leaving it to them to decide what those conditions could be.[3]Other problematic provisions include strict regulation of one-person protests, requirement that the protestors ‘ought to have known’ the conditions levied by the police for the protest lest they face penalty up to fine of £2500, imposition of sentences up to ten years on causing damages to statues and memorials et al.[4]The Labour MP, Peter Kyle, rightly pointed out the irony saying that if an angry mob threw a statute in the river and then turned and threw a woman or a child into water, they would be more harshly punished for the first offence than the second, given that maximum sentence for assault causing actual bodily harm is five years.[5]

Clause 59 of the Bill proposes inclusion of a new statutory offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’ wherein if people cause ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious inconvenience’ they could face imprisonment up to ten years. What is more absurd is that the burden of proof lies on the person being charged where he needs to establish that there was a ‘reasonable excuse’ for his act.[6] The provision is not only ambiguous but also disregards the precedents where courts upheld the importance of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) [Freedom of assembly and association] and the corresponding provisions in the Human Rights Act, 1998. In the case of Navalny v. Russia, the ECHR held that, “Article 11 of the Convention protects a demonstration that may annoy or cause offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims that it is seeking to promote… Any measures interfering with freedom of assembly and expression other than in cases of incitement to violence or rejection of democratic principles – however shocking and unacceptable certain views or words used may appear to the authorities – do a disservice to democracy and often even endanger it.”[7]

One of the most peculiar provisions included in the Bill is that the police can levy conditions if the noise caused by the protests likely cause unease, alarm or distress[8] possibly leading to serious disruption to the activities of an organization that are carried on in the vicinity of the procession.[9]This provision is so broad in its scope that it can easily be misused or misinterpreted.[10] As very justly observed in the case of Galstyn v. Armenia, “The Court, however, finds it hard to imagine a huge political demonstration, at which people express their opinion, not generating a certain amount of noise.”[11]

What does this mean for the legal sector?

The more pressing question here is ‘what does this mean for the country?’. The aforementioned provisions in the Bill have the potential of being grossly misinterpreted and misused by the police officers on the ground extending their powers to curb peaceful protests and justify their actions with the aid of this legislation. A glimpse of how dangerous this could be was seen very evidently during the events that unfolded at the Sarah Everard vigil on 13 March 2021. To see the right to protest be neutered to the extent that it becomes ineffective is extremely threatening for a democratic society and therefore, justifies the #killthebill protests.

 

The Legists Content Team

[1] Paul Easton, ‘What are kill the bill protests?’ (The Big Issue, 30 April 2021) <https://www.bigissue.com/latest/what-are-the-kill-the-bill-protests-police-crime-sentencing-courts-bill/> (accessed 08 May 2021)

[2] ibid

[3] ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 (“PCSC Bill”) – Briefing for MPs’ (The Good Law Project, 15 March 2021) <https://goodlawproject.org/news/pcsc-bill-briefing-for-mps/> (accessed 08 May 2021)

[4] ‘What’s wrong with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ (IER, 19 March 2021) < https://www.ier.org.uk/news/whats-wrong-with-the-police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill/> (accessed 08 May 2021)

[5] ibid

[6] Easton (n1)

[7]Navalny v. Russia (2018) ECHR 1062, para 8

[8] David Mead, ‘The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill reinforces tensions and division at the expense of collective social solidarity’ (LSE British Politics and Policy, 22 March 2021) < https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/police-crime-sentencing-courts-bill/> (accessed 08 May 2021)

[9] The Good Law Project (n3)

[10] ibid

[11] Galstyan v Armenia (2007) 50 EHRR 618

 
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