14 January 2013

Ghana: On the Public Order Act - What Is a Special Event?


ONLY LAST week, I heard somebody on radio saying that he and his group did not need any police permit for their intended demonstration, that they had notified the police and that they themselves would provide their own protection.

I strongly suggest that anyone thinking of planning a demonstration should familiarise himself thoroughly with the Public Order Act, 1994 (act 491) so that he does not break the law.

It is true that, under the Public Order Act, would-be demonstrators do not need a police permit. However, they must by law, "NOTIFY the police of their intention not less than 5 days before the date of the special event." (Emphasis mine.)

The notification shall be in writing and signed by or on behalf of the organisers of the special event, and must provide the following information:

(a) The place and hour of the special event, (b) the nature of the special event,

(c) the time of the commencement, (d) the proposed route and destination, if any, and (e) proposed time of closure of the event.

The notification shall be submitted to a police officer not below the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police or other Police officer responsible for the nearest police station to the location of the proposed special event.

It is within the authority of the police officer so notified to request the organisers of the special event to postpone the holding of the special event or to relocate it if he (the police officer) has reasonable grounds to believe that the special event, if held, may lead to violence or endanger public defence, public order, public safety, public health or the running of essential services, or violate the rights and freedoms of other persons.

Where the organisers are unwilling to postpone or relocate the special event, they must so indicate within forty-eight hours in writing to the police officer.

The Police officer, in turn, may apply to any judge or chairman of a Tribunal for an order to prohibit the holding of the special event on the proposed date or at the proposed location.

Where the judge or Tribunal Chairman grants the request of the police officer, the judge's order must be complied with by the organizers of the proposed public event.

Where the event takes place as a result of an agreement between the organisers and the police, the organisers cannot say that they will dispense with the police protection.

On the contrary, it shall be the responsibility of every police officer to take all such steps as are reasonably necessary in any public place -

(a) To assist in the proper conduct of any a special event to prevent obstruction of pedestrian or vehicle traffic:

(b) To disperse crowds at any special event where he ( the police officer) has reasonable grounds to believe that a breach of the peace is likely to occur or if any breach of the peace has occurred or is occurring in order to prevent violence, restore order and preserve the peace.

The Police officer in charge of an area of a special event may cause to be closed such streets or parts thereof to pedestrian or vehicular traffic or both and may cause to be erected such barriers as may be necessary to preserve public order.

In case of damage to property, the event organisers or persons found to have caused the damage shall be liable to pay for the cost of the damage.

Any person taking part in a special event shall obey the directions of the police officers safeguarding the proper movement of other persons and vehicles and generally maintain order.

Finally, any person taking part in a special event shall conduct himself in such a manner as to avoid causing obstruction of traffic, confusion or disorder.

It is obvious from the provisions of the Public Order Act that event organisers simply cannot say that they will provide their own protection.

The police must be present to protect those taking part in the special event, those not taking part, public property against possible damage, ensure a free-flow of human as well as vehicular traffic.

Only the police are mandated to do this under the law.

As is well known, people taking part in a demonstration, for example, may indulge in acts of violence such as banging on vehicles, unlawfully seizing of other people's property, obstructing traffic etc.

A few questions or observation may be addressed here. In the first place, what is a special event within the context of the Public Order Act?

Under the Act, a "special event" is said to mean a procession, parade, carnival, street dance, celebration of traditional custom, outdooring of traditional ruler, demonstration, public meeting and similar event.

The interpretation goes on to say that the following do not constitute a special event within the meaning of the Act: (a) religious meeting, (b) charitable, social or sporting gathering, (c) any lawful public entertainment or meeting.

What is a public place within the meaning of the Act? The interpretation defines a public place as "a place to which, at the material time, the public have or are permitted to have access whether on payment or otherwise."

It is absurdly simple and obvious that the bedroom in my house is NOT a public place but a private place. Having said that, the question to ask is what constitutes a public place.

I can think of a street or road constructed by the State for public use. But what of a State educational institutions (tertiary, second-cycle and basic)? What of State sports stadiums (or stadia), the Jubilee Parks, Government offices, State hospitals, etc.? Perhaps the lawyers can explain.

The police cannot simply stop a special event from taking place. However, the concern is that they can misuse the authority they have to propose a postponement or relocation of the special event especially where the special event, such as a demonstration, may be against the government of the day.

The suspicion is that this has happened before, with the police giving such reasons as tiredness (after previous duties), insufficient numbers, etc.

The real reason might be that the police might fear the displeasure of the government for allowing the demonstration to take place. Of course, there would not be a problem where such a demonstration is billed as a pro-government demonstration.

Again, while the police can obtain a court order to stop a special event, there is no provision in the Act that permits the event organisers to appeal the court order.

Still, on balance, one can say that the Public Order Act is a vast improvement on the situation where the police could simply stop a special event without giving any explanation.

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