The Memo: Going public with the new Public Order Act

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Going public with the new Public Order Act

Alice Gregory & Nikolai Viedge – 22 May 2023

The Public Order Act 2023 was passed earlier this month, and already, we’ve seen it used to justify arrests (and then very hastily retracted) after a group of people were arrested prior to the King’s Coronation.

This isn’t the first update to the law we’ve seen affect UK protesting in recent years. In 2022, parliament introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which gave the police more power to restrict public processions while increasing penalties for offences. Not to mention that greater limitations were placed on protests during the pandemic, and coronavirus-related adjustments to the law affected many who did take part. Think back to 2021, for instance, when attendants of Sarah Everard’s vigil were arrested and hastily convicted under single justice procedures.

Ahead of the coronation and following a string of highly publicised demonstrations from Just Stop Oil, the updated Public Order Act 2023 introduced new offences such as ‘locking on’ and ‘going equipped,’ while banning acts of ‘serious disruption’. Other offences such as tunnelling, interfering with key national infrastructure and blocking access to abortion services are also listed in the bill.

Four days after this bill had been introduced, six members of the anti-monarchy group Republic were arrested under the new act. The six were arrested on suspicion of being equipped for locking on, but were released after the investigation was unable to prove that there was any intent to engage in it. According to the Act, a person commits the offence of locking on if they:

(i)           attach themselves to another person, to an object or to land,

(ii)          attach a person to another person, to an object or to land, or

(iii)         attach an object to another object or to land.”

The Public Order Act increases potential penalties for those who commit an offence, and gives police more powers to arrest and stop and search anyone they reasonably suspect might be equipped. Police had searched their van and found straps which were used to hold their ‘Not my King’ placards together and claimed they assumed these could be used to lock on. Scotland Yard issued a public apology in which it expressed “regret that those six people arrested were unable to join the wider group of protesters in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere on the procession route.”

One of the arrested Republic members has claimed that he will be taking legal action against the Met Police for a wrongful arrest. Other MPs and human rights organisations have also criticised the bill for being too broad and too rushed. For those interested in public law issues, this is a space to watch. After all, how the law is to be upheld in practice is still being tested, something that often spells further litigation.