17 years ago, the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 11: Right to freedom of assembly and association

The Human Rights Act protects your right to freedom of assembly and association.

The right to freedom of assembly and association protects your right to peacefully protest, go to demonstrations as well as join political parties, trade unions and/or voluntary groups. It also means that nobody can force you to join a protest, trade union, political party or another association.

This right is not absolute, which means that public authorities can sometimes limit the right to freedom of assembly and association - as long as the limitation is: 

  • lawful
  • for a legitimate aim, eg for national security or public safety, to protect the rights of others, prevent disorder and crime, protect health and morals
  • necessary and proportionate (eg the least restrictive option)  

In real life: Right to freedom of assembly and association

Freedom of assembly and association protects the right to peacefully protest

120 protesters were going by coach to demonstrate against the Iraq war at the Royal Air Base in Gloucestershire. Police, who knew that the group was travelling to the protest, stopped the coaches about three miles from the Air Base. The police searched the coaches and seized some items, including helmets, scissors and a safety flame belonging to a couple of the protesters. The police decided that there was no proper basis to arrest anyone, but that they would turn the coaches back and stop the group from attending the protest. Everyone got back on the coaches - thinking they would continue their journey to the protest - but were forced to return to London. The coaches were escorted the entire journey by police, and weren't allowed to stop (including for bathroom breaks). 

The protesters took a human rights case to court, arguing that the police had breached their right to freedom of assembly and association (as well as freedom of expression). The Court agreed, and ruled that the police had breached the protesters rights. There had been no imminent threat to breach of the peace, so the police's decision to limit the protesters' right to freedom of assembly and association was not lawful. The Court also said that this restriction of the protesters' rights was also indiscriminate and disproportionate, because the police didn't have any reason to view the protesters as anything other than peaceful demonstrators. 

(Laporte v Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, 2006)

Right to freedom of association includes political parties

Arthur was a bus driver in Bradford. He worked for Serco Ltd, who provided services for Bradford City Council. Whilst he was working for Serco, Arthur was elected as a Councillor for the British Nationalist Party (BNP). After six months employment, Arthur was dismissed from work - the reasons were about his membership of the BNP, including the health and safety of his colleagues and passengers and risk the reputation of his employer. 

Arthur thought that his dismissal was unfair - he thought he had been discriminated against on the grounds of race. Through employment law, he challenged the decision at a tribunal (where he lost) and then in the courts. The Court of Appeal looked into the case, and recognised that this was about discrimination on political grounds. 

Arthur's case went to the European Court of Human Rights, who decided that Arthur's right to freedom of association had been violated by the UK - because the rules on unfair dismissal were not compatible with his rights. Under the rules in the UK, Arthur couldn't claim unfair dismissal because he had not been working for Serco for more than a year when he was dismissed. Whilst, this was often waived in discrimination and other cases, it wasn't for Arthur or for discrimination on political grounds more generally. The Court said that the rules in the UK should be compatible with human rights, so they should create further exceptions so that people like Arthur could claim unfair dismissal on the grounds of political opinion or affiliation, when they had worked for their employer for less than one year. 

(Redfearn v UK, 2012)