Protester prosecutions guidance published

Luton protest against the Royal Anglian Regiment
Image caption Luton protest: Informed new guidance

People who commit offences at protests should not always be charged, official advice to prosecutors has stated.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC said he wanted to differentiate between violent offenders and essentially peaceful protesters.

The guidance recommends looking at factors such as carrying arms, wearing masks, or remarks on social networks.

The conviction of Muslim men who demonstrated against soldiers in Luton influenced the guidance.

When the police want to charge someone with an offence, the Crown Prosecution Service normally look at whether there is a realistic prospect of a conviction and whether a prosecution would be in the public interest.

In the new guidelines - which cover protests but not violent disorder - the CPS said that a prosecution should be more likely if there has been violence and the individual played a key role in it.

Prosecutors are advised to look for key signs that somebody intended to break the law, such as equipping themselves with weapons or masking their faces. The CPS asks investigators to look for further evidence on social networks or phone records that would further support a charge.

But the guidance also says that prosecutions may not be in the public interest if the crime was minor and committed in the heat of the moment by someone with no relevant previous convictions.

Mr Starmer said: "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 and whose role or act was considered minor.

"It seeks to balance the public's rightful expectation that offenders should face justice, with our legally enshrined and age-old tradition of peaceful protest.

"So criminals bent on disruption and disorder are warned they will not get an easy ride. My intention is that this guidance should ensure these difficult cases are dealt with proportionately and consistently."

Luton protest

The new guidance was partly prompted by the conviction of Muslim men who had protested at a parade by homecoming soldiers in Luton.

During that parade in 2009, the small group shouted abuse at soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment who were returning from Afghanistan.

Local anger over the demonstration contributed to the launch of the English Defence League which has since staged protests in areas with large Muslim communities.

Five of the men convicted over the Luton demonstration tried unsuccessfully to challenge their convictions for public order offences. Upholding the convictions, the Court of Appeal laid down broad principles on charging protesters.

The judges saidthe starting point should be a recognition of the right to freedom of expression, even if what is said is offensive to some.

But they added that if speech goes beyond offensive words and becomes threatening, a prosecution should occur if it is proportionate and necessary to preserve public order.

The guidance does not relate to rioting, such as last August's events across England, becausethere are existing rules in placefor that kind of disorder.

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