Criminal Justice Bill
Lessons in law for ravers
By the end of this month, outdoor events 'characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats' could land you in trouble. As MPs prepare to vote on Ben Duncan takes the legal temperature and offers some practical advice to those in the firing line...
The Criminal Justice & Public Order Bill (1994) is a large schedule that tightens the law and extends police powers in many areas. And there's hardly a law & order issue that's hit the headlines in the past two years on which it does not impinge.
Examples include the loss of an individual's right to silence; the right to breaking up of groups of travellers exceeding 5 vehicles; increased penalties for 'soft drugs' that are legal in other parts of the EEC, the age of male consent, prohibiting misuse of human embryos, and so on. Of the 171 sections, at least five will be of concern to the most law abiding of The Mix's readers!
These five notable sections notionally concern new police powers in connection with 'raves'. Parties would be a fairer description. A closer reading reveals that you will be in trouble if you organise or merely attend any event outdoors where 100 or more people attend, and any kind of music is played that is not licensed by the local council. It could be a garden party. The 100 people limit is technical, because a careful reading of section 63, clause 2 shows that the police can stop an event with only ten people attending, where an officer 'reasonably believes' 100 people may ultimately be present.
That 'trouble' can mean not just arrest for attending or organising the event, but also the seizure of sound equipment, either on the spot or later. It may be retained until the 'conclusion of proceedings', or else sold or destroyed. The owner may even be charged for the cost of the equipment's removal or destruction!
On this basis, being legitimate and getting an entertainment licence doesn't seem too onerous. But the licence may not be issued until the last moment. This makes it hazardous to advertise, invest in or prepare for an event, effectively preventing promoters from contemplating properly organised events. Or the licence may be withheld on technical or spurious grounds, possibly as a result of police pressure.
Even though the bill is not yet law, inability to get a licence (and the consequent threat of police sanctions) has already been the reason (either partly or wholly) for the abandonment of a number of major live events in the UK earlier this year, including one at Lydd airport. More recently, a major event planned in Newham in London, to promote community relations had a licence from the council (who were morally backing the event), but was abandoned because the police insisted it would cause a breach of the peace - and both the community relations leader and the council risked prosecution if they went ahead!
Current law already gives the authorities extensive powers in connection with large gatherings.
First, local authorities have increasing powers to deal with noise. Second, the police already have powers to deal with situations which may threaten a breach of the peace (the Public Order Act, 1986) - which can include any noise affecting local residents. The new laws give the police sweeping powers that will particularly concern anyone who promotes or organises outdoor events. Section 64 allows the police to enter houses without a warrant if they 'reasonably believe' the occupier is organising the kind of event which is about to become unlawful. And anyone who has had involvement in, or is known for organising outdoor events will find the perpetual right of the police to walk into their homes, studios or offices unsettling to say the least.
Beginning with section 63, the new law is poorly defined. Key words such as 'serious distress', 'night' and 'inhabitants of the locality' are not defined. 'Night' presumably means after the sun has set. It is not clear who the inhabitants are; maybe only one needs to suffer distress, but how much is serious? The law only mentions 'Sound Equipment'. It defines this as 'equipment designed or adapted for amplifying music and any equipment suitable for use in connection with such equipment.'
It is plausible that samplers, musical instruments and even records, data, tapes and lights could be included. Moreover, what happens to seized equipment is left up to the Secretary of State; section 64 gives him the power to make the regulations for retention, safekeeping, disposal and destruction of equipment.
If you are supplying (whether hiring or loaning) PA or musical equipment for an outdoor event, it seems the only way to fairly or 'watertightly' safeguard it against possible confiscation by the police is to get written evidence, preferably from the Local Authority. The promoter is an alternative source of such evidence, but only if he/she operates as a legitimate business, with printed letterhead and premises.
You also need to be absolutely certain that the equipment is being used solely at the event described, by the people you are loaning or hiring to. If you know the event has no licence, but you intend to proceed, it is best to exempt the owners of any sound equipment, so protecting it from confiscation.
If as a musician you are playing at an outdoor event, and will be bringing equipment, including instruments that the police could construe as 'suitable for use in connection with sound equipment', you may likewise want to know that there is a licence. Readers are warned that if the police did confiscate your equipment, the court probably wouldn't accept any verbal assurance you had received.
Anyone organising a private outdoor event with any number of people involving music (it could just be a wedding reception on the lawn; or a party for 17) is advised to have an official-looking gatekeeper. If the police arrive and the gatekeeper is ready with a numbered list of guest names which stops below 100, and knows the law, and can communicate in a no nonsense, authoritative way, it could increase your chances that the police will go away satisfied that the gathering is under control.
The proof of the pudding will consist largely in how the law is enforced by the police, executed by the Crown Prosecution Service, and interpreted by the courts. Watch this space.
Feature by Ben Duncan
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