DPP defends right to peaceful protest


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The Independent Online

Protesters should not be prosecuted for crimes committed "in the heat of the moment", the Director of Public Prosecutions has said.

Issuing the guidance in the same week that the latest trial of protesters alleged to have been involved in last year's Fortnum and Mason demonstration got underway, Keir Starmer said he wanted to protect the "age-old tradition of peaceful protest".

"This guidance will help prosecutors to differentiate between violent or disruptive offenders who risk causing damage and injury to others, and those whose intent was essentially peaceful," he said.

Mr Starmer added that peaceful protests should not be targeted by prosecutors, neither should suspects who played minor roles in criminal actions, whose crimes themselves were minor, nor those who have no previous relevant history of offending at protests.

However, he said that the right to protest peacefully should be balanced with the "public's rightful expectation that offenders should face justice".

The guidelines said that prosecutions should still be brought for violent, pre-meditated acts, against protesters deemed to have played a leading role in major crimes or to have encouraged others to get involved in violence. Protesters who committed crimes while seeking to hide their identities, for example by wearing masks were also likely to face prosecution, he said.

Mr Starmer added that those who caused damage to property were likely to face prosecution, as were those who caused significant disruption to the public or businesses at protests and those with a history of causing violence, damage, disruption or making threats.
He asked prosecutors to pay special attention to determining whether protesters were planning to commit crimes and to check telephone or computer records and "consider whether social network activity may provide evidence that they were closely involved in planning criminality".

The guidance, drawn up with the cooperation of Association of Chief Police Officers and civil rights group Liberty and Justice, reiterated that a High Court judgment last year ruled that the starting point for police and prosecutors should be an individual?s right to freedom of expression.

Mr Starmer said he wanted to ensure "consistency" following some of the largest student and union protests in recent times. But he insisted that it would not cover disturbances such as last year's riots.

It has never been the rule that prosecution will automatically follow evidence of an offence, the guidelines stated.

Prosecutors first have to establish whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction and then consider whether a prosecution would be in the public interest.