England’s law lords have ruled that police have no powers to control the monthly Critical Mass ride in London.
Cyclist Desmond Kay and Friends of the Earth appealed to the country’s highest court after the Metropolitan Police demanded advance notice of times, routes and organisers’ details.
This would have effectively allowed officers to ban the Critical Mass rides, where cyclists travel in large groups, temporarily blocking roads and reclaiming the streets from motor traffic.
Police argued that the gatherings were unlawful under the Public Order Act 1986, and they threatened riders with prosecution. They were backed by the Court of Appeal.
But Mr Kay launched a legal challenge, and today five law lords upheld his appeal. They said that, because Critical Mass is a regular event with no set route, it is exempt from certain sections of the Act. Officers can police it once it is in progress, but cannot demand a route plan or personal details.
Afterwards, Mr Kay said he was thrilled with the judgment. “This was a very important case for people like me who have cycled with Critical Mass for many years,” he said. “More importantly, I hope that it will encourage other cyclists to join the monthly rides.”
“Arresting cyclists at Critical Mass would be like arresting passengers for gathering at Westminster tube station”
Friends of the Earth’s Rights and Justice Centre said the ruling was an “important victory for the right to peaceful protest and for cyclists to take part in this monthly celebration of cycling”, while Jenny Jones, who represents the Green Party on the London Assembly, described it as “a victory for common sense, and for the rights of cyclists to get on their bikes”.
She added: “Critical Mass is a lively but peaceful get-together of cyclists which has been going on for over a decade without any major incidents. Arresting cyclists at Critical Mass would be like arresting passengers for gathering at Westminster tube station during the rush hour.”
The Metropolitan Police said the law lords had provided clarification of the sections of the Public Order Act pertaining to public processions. A spokesman said: “The policing of Critical Mass has been kept under review to ensure that the Metropolitan Police service provides the most appropriate and proportionate level and style of policing for the event.”
The case dates back to September 2005, when police handed out notices to Critical Mass riders saying that the event was unlawful under the 1986 Act because organisers had failed to give advance notice of the date, time, route and their names and addresses. Participants were warned that they could be prosecuted.
When the cyclists challenged this in the Administrative Court, Lord Justice Sedley ruled that the event was not governed by the Public Order Act because the legislation included an exemption for “processions” which were “commonly or customarily” held in the same area. Critical Mass has taken place in central London on the last Friday of every month since April 1994 and it always starts at the same location, the South Bank, near the National Theatre, at 6pm.
“Spontaneity is at their heart. To insist upon a settled route would be to destroy their character and purpose”
But the police launched an appeal and this was upheld by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that “a procession cannot become common or customary if no route or end point is ever the same”. Critical Mass has no predetermined route, end-time or destination – the riders make it up as they go along.
Mr Kay appealed this ruling, and five law lords were given the final say. In their judgment, released today, they unanimously allowed the appeal on the basis that a procession could be customary without always following the same route.
Lord Carswell compared Critical Mass to Remembrance Day parades, which he said generally had a fixed starting and finishing point but could follow different routes. Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said the Court of Appeal’s ruling would have effectively allowed the police to ban Critical Mass rides. He said: “Spontaneity is at their heart. To insist upon a settled route would be to destroy their character and purpose.”
Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 and has since spread to cities across the world. The movement promotes cycling as an environmentally friendly way of travelling and campaigns for better provision for cyclists.