June 1, 2023 - 11:15am

A month ago, on the fourth day of Just Stop Oil’s slow-walking campaign, the Government announced the introduction of new legislation enabling police to shut down the protests more quickly. The road-blocking marches have continued every day since, and yesterday it was reported that we must wait another month for the changes to become law. Will they make any difference?

As things stand, protesters have about 15 minutes before police intervene — which is all they need for the media attention they seek. During that time plod looks both weak, for standing around doing nothing, and perversely authoritarian, for manhandling angry members of the public who, not being funded by a billionaire heiress looking to expiate the sins of her oil magnate grandfather, just need to get to work.

But it’s not really the police’s fault. The Human Rights Act requires them to consider the balance of European Convention rights, which takes a little time. Of course, how careful and prolonged their consideration needs to be depends on the detail of the laws created by Parliament, the interpretation of those laws by the appeal courts, and the particular behaviour of the protesters.

Parliament lent a hand last year, by redefining “serious disruption to the life of the community” in s.12 of the Public Order Act 1986 to include, for example, “prolonged disruption to essential services”. And more assistance came in early May with, among other things, the new offence of “locking on” (not much of that going on these last few weeks, note). This has all helped to loosen the shackles imposed by the Supreme Court in 2021 in the Ziegler case.

But as long as Just Stop Oil can capture shareable footage of small numbers of the middle classes in orange T-shirts enraging large numbers of the working classes in orange trousers, they will continue to do so, and the public will be the loser.

Changes coming next month (made by Statutory Instrument, so extremely hard to stop) involve further redefinition of “serious disruption to the life of the community”. Protests over several days can then be judged as a single event, and therefore become amenable to a single decision on policing response. Delay that is “more than minor” will be enough to constitute “serious disruption”, and the effect on police resources will be taken into account. 

This last consideration might weigh quite heavily: over 10,000 police shifts per month are now consumed by Just Stop Oil’s voracious appetite for publicity. With these slots freed up, we might even look forward to an improvement in the appalling response times to burglaries and similar offences.

It is hard to predict, and easy to overestimate, the practical effect of a new law. But in this case, the clearer and more substantial the lawbreaking, the quicker the police will be able to act. So there is reason to believe that, from next month, Just Stop Oil’s fifteen minutes might be more like two, which could narrow their all-important publicity window to vanishing point.

Is it fair? Lord Hoffmann’s famous lines about the importance of the right to protest, and the unspoken agreement between police and protester, are instructive. “Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country,” he began, in a 2006 opinion of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. “But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint

By causing never-ending disruption out of all proportion to the numbers of protesters, in order to raise awareness of an issue already at the heart of both Government and opposition policy, Just Stop Oil has not held its side of that bargain. And while the police and prosecutors must continue to act with restraint, that may soon start to look a lot less like spinelessness.

Adam King is a criminal barrister at QEB Hollis Whiteman.