Protesters have a legal right to assemble on public roadsides for peaceful demonstrations, the law lords ruled yesterday.
By a three-two majority, they held that two demonstrators at Stonehenge were wrongly convicted of 'trespassory assembly', an offence introduced by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
The act introduced a power for chief constables to ban assemblies of 20 or more people which exceeded 'the limits of the public's right of access'. The courts stated in earlier cases that the public had a right of access to public roads only for travelling.
Yesterday Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hutton and Lord Clyde held that there was a right to use the roads for peaceful, non-obstructive protest. However, Lord Clyde said it was not an absolute right but would depend on the nature, extent and duration of the protest. Lord Irvine, who has the right to sit as a judge in the Lords, was giving his second judgment since taking office nearly two years ago. Some legal minds believe that as a Cabinet minister he should be disqualified from the bench.
The ruling was a victory for Margaret Jones, a university lecturer, and Richard Lloyd, a student, who took part in a peaceful roadside demonstration at Stonehenge in Wiltshire in June 1995. In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the 'Battle of the Beanfield', a confrontation between travellers and police, the chief constable of Wiltshire obtained an order banning assemblies of 20 or more.
The police estimated that 21 had gathered to demonstrate for the right of access to the ancient stones. Dr Jones and Mr Lloyd were arrested when they refused to move on, convicted by Salisbury magistrates, and then cleared by Salisbury crown court, which ruled that any peaceful and non-obstructive assembly was lawful.
The Crown Prosecution Service appealed, and in 1997 the High Court allowed the appeal, ruling that the prosecution need only prove that the assembly consisted of 20 or more and the protesters knew it was prohibited.
Allowing an appeal by Dr Jones and Mr Lloyd, Lord Irvine concluded that 'the public highway is a public place which the public may enjoy for any reasonable purpose, provided the activity in question does not amount to a public or private nuisance and does not obstruct the highway . . there is a public right of peaceful assembly'. Lord Irvine added that, for roads on private land, the laws of trespass protected owners.
Dissenting, Lord Slynn said the law clearly restricted public rights on highways to the right to 'passage and reasonable incidental uses'.
Lord Hope, also dissenting, said accepting a right of peaceful protest would 'affect the position of every private owner of land throughout the country over which there is a public right of way'.