UK court rules new police powers to impose conditions on protest are unlawful

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's government exceeded its powers by lowering the threshold last year for police to impose conditions on peaceful protests, a move which would require more substantial changes to the law, London's High Court ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling handed a victory to civil rights group Liberty, which took the government to court over changes to public order laws which it says gave the police almost unlimited powers to shut down protests.

The case was heard in February amid a wider crackdown on protest movements in Britain and across Europe, as environmental activists used direct action at demonstrations over climate change.

Judges Nicholas Green and Timothy Kerr found that the regulations granting the new powers were unlawful. The government was given permission to appeal the decision, and the ruling blocking the new powers was suspended until any appeal could be heard.

Liberty's director Akiko Hart said in a statement that the new powers had been introduced "with the clear intention of stopping protesters that the government did not personally agree with".

Katy Watts, a lawyer with Liberty, added: "We hope today's ruling makes the Government take stock, and that they instead work to protect our rights rather than strip them away further."

The Home Office welcomed the granting of the right to appeal and said the government "will consider all other options to keep this important power for police".

"The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy but we must also protect the law-abiding majority's right to go about their daily lives," the Home Office spokesperson added.

Liberty's legal action focused on the Public Order Act, under which the police can impose conditions on a protest if it could cause "serious disruption to the life of the community".

The law was amended last year, to allow police to impose conditions in cases where a protest could cause "more than minor" disruption. Liberty said that change was unlawful.

The High Court ruled that in changing the law the government exceeded its powers, which "did not extend to lowering the threshold for police intervention" without passing new primary legislation in parliament.

(This story has been corrected to fix the name of the first judge from David Bean to Nicholas Green in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by Sam Tobin; Editing by Sarah Young and Peter Graff)