Policing and power: know your rights for protests and demos

Learn how to keep yourself safe when protesting or attending a demonstration. This handy guide covers planning actions, police power and your rights.

17 Mar 2023

Important note: the government is attempting to introduce the draconian Public Order Bill, which aims to severely restrict the right to protest. We're actively monitoring this and will release new guidance once the Bill passes through parliament.

The new Bill is particularly aimed at movements and activists that use direct action and civil disobedience against government or corporate inaction on the climate emergency. In doing so, the Bill doesn't meaningfully engage with and address the concerns of communities. The Bill uses vague language to define protest and what involvement in a protest looks like, and expands policing powers to "stop and search" potential protesters.

The Public Order Bill hasn't passed into law yet. You have the right to engage in protest, non-violent direct action and to support marches. Please read our guidance on protest and non-violent direct action and contact community@foe.co.uk if you have any questions or concerns about participating in any planned actions.

Please share these template posts with your MP to post on social media if they agree to vote against the Public Order Bill.

Policing and power: know your rights for protests and demos

We're working to update this guidance and will have more to share when the Public Order Bill becomes law. The guidance below is out of date as the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has come into force, meaning the police can restrict protest. However, you still have the right to protest. Get in touch with community@foe.co.uk if you have any questions.

In our campaign work, there are times we need to get out onto the streets to get voices heard. This guide provides you with information about planning protests, police power and your rights. It’s designed to help you keep safe when you’re protesting in public spaces.

Protest has always been part of Friends of the Earth’s history. From our first action returning empty bottles to the London HQ of Cadbury Schweppes to promoting re-use through to protests around roadbuilding and anti-fracking. Many of our campaigns have had public stunts, community actions and big marches. This is, in part, how we achieve change.

We’ve put together this guide based on materials from organisations who specialise in protest law and policing such as Green and Black Cross, Netpol and Liberty. This guide covers the situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. People joining us in Glasgow for COP26 will be provided with information that relevant for the Scottish legal system.

Think through your tactics

It's important to make sure that you're clear on why you’re getting out onto the streets, and also that you’re being heard by the right people. This could be gathering support from others in your community, or it could be drawing attention of your issue to a decision maker.

Whatever is getting you out on the streets, make sure you are following our Protest and Non Violence Direct Action guidance. We only organise and participate in lawful non-violent direct action when we believe it is our best way to achieve our objectives consistent with our rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and other relevant democratic rights.

Do you need permission to be on the streets?

You have a right to protest - you don’t need to ask permission from the police.

Depending on where you want to go and what you want to do, you may need to engage with certain people when you start planning. For example, you may need to inform the police if you are planning a protest or march in England or Wales (if you're organising a march it is advisable to tell the police six days before to your planned march).

Not everything requires engaging with the police in advance though. For example, if you’re organising a static demonstration – a protest on the pavement outside a local authority – you don't need to tell the police. If you haven’t told the police in advance about your activity, it's possible that they’ll turn up and ask questions about what you’ve planned and for how long.

Anyone wishing to organise a parade or public procession in Northern Ireland must complete Form 11/1 and hand it directly to the police station nearest the starting point of the parade. This notification must be given at least 28 days before the date of the planned parade.

Netpol have put together some helpful points to remember around talking to the police in advance of a protest.

Whether you decide to talk to the police or not, there are five points to remember:

  1. The police don’t grant permission for protests.
  2. If organisers talk to the police, this should mean you have assessed that it’ll help make a protest more successful, rather than seeing talking with the police an expectation on everyone who takes part.
  3. If the police seek to impose conditions that are too restrictive, you don’t have to accept them.
  4. If the police want you to agree to ‘liaison policing’, you can instead insist on nominating your own liaison person to communicate directly with the senior officer on the day – or choose not to liaise with the police at all.
  5. If you decide not to talk to the police (in advance), make sure you have legal observers present. Contact Green and Black Cross as early as possible to make arrangements

Police and power

This part of the guide helps you make the best decisions for your planned activities, making sure everyone involved is safe.

We know, and the Black Lives Matter movement really highlighted, that structures within the police disproportionately affect certain groups of people. Some people have more reason to be fearful of the police than others. It is all of our responsibility, when organising on the streets, to make sure our spaces are as safe as possible for every member of our community to participate. We need our movement to be diverse, but also as allies in the wider social justice movement, we need to prioritise people. To keep our spaces safe, we will:

  • prioritise engaging with people in the movement over engaging with police
  • acknowledge that people who are fearful/wary of police won’t feel safe in a space where people are engaging with police
  • live out allyship by making connections with those who are at the demonstration/part of the movement rather than police.

Police’s role in facilitating protest

Police have a duty to facilitate protest even if they haven’t been formally notified in advance. In law, we have a right to protest in a peaceful way (including static protests, marches, parades and processions, demonstrations, and rallies). This law means that police must take reasonable measures to make sure that a protest assembly can go ahead and must not unnecessarily disrupt or make it difficult for people to hold protests.

Police forces have also been known to put support in place for demonstrations and marches. The Metropolitan Police for example can help with managing logistics, such as setting up a stage, providing essential facilities (such as toilets), or managing traffic.

For more detail on the law around your right to protest and police’s requirements to facilitate it (European Human rights section 9, 10 and 11) read the College of Policing’s public order core principles and legislation.

However, police can also impose conditions on your protest if they think it could cause:

  • serious public disorder
  • serious damage to property
  • serious disruption to the life of the community.

Read more about the process police must go through if they’d like to impose a condition in Liberty’s guidance. In addition, in Northern Ireland, the Parades Commission can place conditions on parades or marches, and seeks to mediate disputes concerning public processions.

Engaging with police on your day of action

If you've engaged with the police in advance or think the police might turn up during your activities, you might want to be prepared. Think through what you do or don’t want from the police on the day, and have agreements as a group about how to, or not to, speak to the police. It's the police’s responsibility to help facilitate your protest to happen, so make sure you’re clear about what you can expect from them.

However, remember that all police, especially the Police Liaison Officers who often turn up to demonstrations and protests, are there to gather information on you and the wider movement. It's important that you maintain the space you are holding as one which is safe for the wider public to engage with. How you interact with the police can shift that. Think through how you will continue to get your message out and engage with the community if police are present and are asking questions of the group.

Know your rights

In order to prioritise engaging with people in our communities and the movement over the police, we need to feel confident in our rights.

The police system has power, e.g. the power to arrest, however this is built further through the power people can automatically give them because they are in uniform. The following advice from Green and Black Cross shows us how we can limit our engagement with the police at our demonstrations and marches, and therefore reduce the power they hold over our activities.

This information covers everything from being at a demonstration through to arrest. While we don’t expect the activities you do to risk arrest, it’s important to be aware of this information just in case, especially if you’re joining something where a range of demonstration tactics you wouldn't ordinarily use yourself.

Important phrases to familiarise yourself with

No comment

You don’t need to answer police questions, so don’t.

This is for your own protection and for the protection of others.

The police will try to pressure and deceive you into incriminating yourself. Instead of trying to decide when it seems ‘safe’ to answer, just say “no comment” to all questions – during ‘informal chats’ on the street, in the police van and especially in interview.

No personal details

You don’t have to give personal details under ANY stop and search power, so don’t.

During protests, the police often use searches as a way of finding out who is present, both for intelligence purposes and to intimidate you.

Police also use arrest as a means of gathering information, particularly when they arrest a large number of people together (mass arrest).

As a default, you DON’T have to give your personal details to the police at any point during the arrest process.

We recommend not giving personal details to the police for as long as possible. If you have been arrested and taken to the police station, you may wish to give your name, address and date of birth at the custody desk to speed your release. Police will usually check the address and may visit at a later date.

Once you reach court, you can be required to give your name, address, date of birth and nationality.

There are a few situations in which police may have a power to require personal details: if you’re driving a vehicle (or another licensed activity), if you’re being fined under a Fixed Penalty Notice, under a particular anti-social behaviour power (which shouldn’t generally be used against protesters), or if there is a particular by-law (for example, in a port or airport).

What Power?

Ask “what power?” to challenge the police to act lawfully.

Some police officers rely on you not knowing the law. If you’re asked to do something by a police officer, ask them what power (i.e. what law) they’re using and why they’re using it. Make a note of what was said, by whom (take their police number. This is usually displayed on their uniform on their shoulder) as soon as possible afterwards.

Don’t let them turn this into a situation where they ask you questions though – just walk away once you have your answer, and remember no comment!

No duty solicitor

Use a recommended solicitor with protest experience

The “duty solicitor” is the solicitor who is present at the police station. They may come from any firm of solicitors, which means they almost certainly know nothing about protest.

Duty solicitors often give bad advice to protesters; we recommend you always use a good solicitor who knows about protest.

No caution

Cautions are an admission of guilt

Offering you a caution is a way the police may ask you to admit guilt for an offence without having to charge you. It’s an easy win for the police, as they don’t have to provide any evidence or convince a court of your guilt.

At the very least, you should never accept a caution without taking advice from a good solicitor.