The right to freedom of assembly and association is protected by Article 11 of the Human Rights Act.

How might this right be relevant to my life?

The right to freedom of assembly and association protects your right to organise and take part in peaceful meetings, marches and demonstrations. It protects your right to be part of ‘associations’ such as clubs, societies, political parties, religious organisations and trade unions. It also means nobody can force you to join one of these types of groups. The right to freedom of assembly and association is about promoting democracy.

Some examples of when your right to freedom of assembly and association might be at risk include:

  • Peaceful demonstrations being disproportionately restricted by police.
  • Lack of support or protection from public services in organising peaceful protests when prior notice has been given.
  • Being treated unfairly by a public authority for being a member of a trade union – your right to be free from discrimination (Article 14) would also be relevant here.

Can my right to freedom of assembly be restricted by a public official?

Yes – this is a non-absolute right which can be restricted. It has to be balanced against the rights of others and needs of society.

If a public official is deciding to restrict your right to freedom of assembly and association, they must go through a test. They must be able to show that their decision is:

Lawful:

There must be a law which allows public officials to take that action or decision.

Legitimate:

Any restriction has to be for good reason. Restrictions could be imposed on our right to freedom of assembly and association in the interests of public safety, to prevent crime, to protect health, or to protect the rights of others.

Proportionate:

They have thought about other things they could do, but there is no other way to protect you or other people. It must be the least restrictive option.

You can ask the public official about their decision or action and ask them to tell you how it was lawful, legitimate and proportionate.

If you can think of a way to deal with this situation or decision that is less restrictive to you then you can raise it with the public official as the decision may not be proportionate.

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right: 

This means public authorities should take ‘reasonable and appropriate’ measures to promote our right to freedom of assembly and association, and protect those taking part in meeting from harm from others.

To protect your right: 

This means that people working in public bodies should take 'reasonable and appropriate' action to ensure that your right to freedom of assembly and association is protected.



To fulfil your right: 

This means that when decisions are made about you right to freedom of assembly and association you must be treated fairly. When things go wrong they should be investigated and steps should be taken to try and stop the same thing happening again.

Protecting the right to peaceful 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 protesting. Everyone got back on the coaches - thinking they would continue their journey to the protest - but were forced to return to London with a police escort, and they weren’t allowed to stop. 

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.

R (Laporte) v Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, House of Lords, 2006

 

Employment and Political Party Membership

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)