Last reviewed: 30/01/23
The police commonly use this power to arrest protestors and demonstrators who are standing outside buildings, sitting down blockading entrances or roads and in many public order situations.
The offence is committed if a person without a lawful excuse or authority wilfully obstructs the free passage of the highway.
The 'highway' is not just limited to roads but also includes pavements, grass verges and private property used as a public thoroughfare. Also, all members of the public (not just a portion of it) should have a right to pass, at will, along the highway for it to actually be a highway. The right to pass at will may be for a limited reason (eg vehicles on a road, or pedestrians on a footpath).
‘Obstruction’ includes anything that prevents passing and re-passing along the highway. To be committing this offence, you don't have to be blocking the whole width of the highway. This is because the offence is obstructing the highway itself (and not other users of the highway). The prosecution, therefore, does not have to prove that anyone was actually obstructed, but instead that you obstructed the highway itself.
It must also be proved that the obstruction was 'wilful'. Commonly, the police will ask you to move and will often give you warnings to move. The police will normally be recording them giving you these warnings, as this could be used to prove that the obstruction you caused or were part of was wilful.
Changes to the law since the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022(PCSC Act 2022).
These changes apply to offences committed on or after the 12th May 2022.
Under the previous (s137 of the Highways Act 1980) law the maximum sentence was a fine now the maximum sentence has increased to 51 weeks imprisonment *, an unlimited fine or both. First time offenders are still likely to be dealt with by way of a fine or a conditional discharge though.It is no longer a defence to say that the highway was already obstructed when you sat down, locked on, or otherwise obstructed it. This applies if the road is already blocked by police, traffic wardens or anyone else.
It is also worth noting that Obstruction of the Highway is now a recordable offence. This means that the police can now use reasonable force to obtain your biometrics (fingerprints & DNA) if you don’t do so voluntarily and that a record of the arrest will be stored on the Police National Computer.
*Although above it reads that the maximum sentence is "51 weeks", this is currently to be read as 6 months. This is until Section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is brought into force.