The police will have to provide better explanations for the use of dispersal orders following a successful challenge at the High Court.
Sarah Ann Sierney, 20, was part of a group of 10 to 15 young people ordered out of the Shiregreen area of Sheffield on 29 October 2004. She was given a 60-hour community punishment order in June last year for failing to leave the scene, but last week had her conviction overruled.
Mr Justice Nelson said that authorisation for the dispersal order failed to give enough detail as to why the order had been issued.
The authorisation only stated that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that members of the public had been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of the presence or behaviour of groups of two or more people within the area of Shiregreen”.
Lady Justice Hallett, also sitting at the High Court, agreed that authorisation failed to specify the incidents that necessitated a dispersal order. She added that there was little government guidance on the matter.
According to Home Office figures, of 809 dispersal orders issued across 42 police forces between January 2004 and June 2005, “intimidation and harassment” were by far the most common reasons cited.
Following the judgement, a spokesperson on behalf of Sierney said: “Police will have to adhere to what Parliament intended when giving authorisation for these extra powers and specify what the grounds for that authorisation are.
“Parliament and the law require that these powers are exercised in such a way that fundamental rights are also protected.”
The case coincided with the publication of new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which suggested that often young people actually group together with friends in gangs as a way of keeping safe and avoiding trouble.
A spokesperson from the human rights group Liberty said: “The overly broad discretion that police are given to disperse a ‘group’ of two or more people in certain neighbourhoods threatens social behaviour as much as antisocial behaviour.
“Criminalising someone’s mere presence in an area is not a proportionate response to the problem.”