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People march for the "Not My Bill protest" to demonstrate against the government's anti-protest laws, anti-strike laws, anti-traveler laws and the illegal migration bill, London, United Kingdom, May 27, 2023. © 2023 Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images

In a rare piece of good news for human rights and democracy in the United Kingdom, last week the High Court ruled that anti-protest measures introduced by the government earlier this year are unlawful. The case was brought by Liberty, a UK-based civil liberties organization, who hailed the decision as a “victory for democracy.”

Last June, then Home Secretary Suella Braverman substantially increased police powers by lowering the threshold at which police could intervene in protests, from those causing “serious disruption” to causing “more than minor” disruption. As a result, hundreds of protesters have been arrested, including climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was acquitted of all charges in February.

Controversially, the House of Lords had already rejected the amendment months earlier, during the passage of the Public Order Act 2023. Rather than resubmitting it for Parliament’s reconsideration, Braverman forced the change through using so-called Henry VIII powers, controversial clauses that enable ministers to amend an Act of Parliament without needing Parliamentary approval: a move Liberty director Akiko Hart described as attempting to get “dangerous powers … sneaked through the back door.”

In its 56-page ruling, the High Court ruled that the Home Secretary did not have the power to lower the threshold. The court also ruled that the Home Office had acted unlawfully by not consulting groups likely to be impacted by the new powers, preferring to consult only what Liberty described as “a narrow group of stakeholders” in an “unfair” and “one-sided” process.

While this ruling is to be celebrated, it is a silver lining in an otherwise overcast rights landscape in the UK. The same day the judgment was delivered, severe new anti-protest measures were recommended by the government’s advisor on political violence. If adopted, these would have a dramatic impact on an already shrinking civic space.

The right to protest has been under sustained attack in the UK for several years and urgent action is required to reverse a trend that has already been disastrous for rights.

Whoever is in power following the general election in July should end the wholesale assault on freedom of speech and assembly and repeal the Public Order Act 2023. The UK needs to restore its standing as a country committed to upholding human rights and the rule of law.

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