An Offence of “Slow Walking”?

Image credit: John Englart (Takver) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It has been reported that Police in England and Wales are to be given new powers to tackle “disruptive” slow walking used by protesters to block roads.

The new legislation would give officers more leeway to intervene when protesters attempt to block roads with slow marching. Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion are among the groups to have used the tactic.

The government says the new law is required because the police need more clarity on when their existing powers can be used.

BJ Harrington, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for public order and public safety, said: “Policing is not anti-protest, but there is a difference between protest and criminal activism, and we are committed to responding quickly and effectively to activists who deliberately disrupt people’s lives through dangerous, reckless and criminal acts.”

How easy will it be to pass an effective law?

There are doubts that any new offence will be enforceable as the courts have in the past considered “slow walking” in the context of highway obstruction.

In Boyd & Anor v Ineos Upstream Ltd & Ors [2019] EWCA Civ 515, a case cited by a leading legal commentator speaking about these proposals, the Court of Appeal observed:

“…slow walking is not itself defined and is too wide: how slow is slow? Any speed slower than a normal walking speed of two miles per hour? One does not know.”

But, more recently in High Speed Two (HS2) Ltd and Another v Persons Unknown and Others, 23 September 2022, the court appeared more optimistic as to whether such a phrase could be incorporated:

“As to the ‘slow walking’ point, this misses out the key provision in [3] of the draft injunction order. This prohibits in [3(b)], ‘deliberately obstructing or otherwise interfering with the free movement of vehicles’, and then gives as an example of such conduct in [5(f)]: ‘deliberate slow walking in front of vehicles in the vicinity of the HS2 Land.’

There is nothing vague or unclear about these provisions. I am confident that protesters and would-be protesters know exactly what they or others have been doing which these provisions now prohibit. Also, as the Claimants point out, it was part of D6’s case that slow walking should be permitted because it was a long-established form of protest (Skeleton, [118]). At the same time, it was also submitted by D6 that ‘slow-walking’ was too vague, relying on Ineos (Skeleton, [12]). I accept that there is an element of D6 wanting to have it both ways in this suggested ground of appeal.”

It will be for parliament and, in due course, the courts to scrutinise legislation that seeks to make slow walking unlawful in some instances.

Still, it is at least clear that the government is once again seeking to curtail the extent of lawful protest by creating new statutory laws to outlaw some forms of action.

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