A Summary of Photography and UK Law

Photography and the law has always been either a frustrating or a very touchy subject. As always I will start by saying that this article is not a definitive guide to the law and should not be taken as such, and it does of course apply to the UK - that means the laws governing England and Wales. Those laws may differ if you are in any other jurisdiction. This is not a discussion on copyright – please see the relevant articles on this blog.

Despite changes to the terrorism laws and the supposed education of our police officers and PCSOs there are still a remarkable and worrying number of instances where photographers and members of the public are questioned, threatened, searched, and in some cases abused by the authorities for doing nothing more than innocently enjoying their hobby. Street photography is, and always has been, an immensely popular past time in many parts of the world. There is no doubt that a high number of police officers are still not familiar with the laws surrounding photography, or the laws as they relate to terrorism. I think we can all appreciate that officers are required to carry a great deal of information in their heads whilst going about their duties, but acting on presumption (and also the presumption that a member of the public will accept without question anything that somebody in uniform tells them) is not acceptable and no person in a position of authority should act without a clear understanding of the facts and legalities.

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I have in the past written detailed articles on this subject but I receive repeated requests for a concise summary as to the laws affecting anybody in England and Wales who engages in photography. I will preface this by saying that in all cases where we are in contact with the police, it is always advisable to try to stay as calm and polite as possible (even if we know the officer is wrong) and where there is justification for a complaint we have the right to note the officer’s number and we have the right to make our complaint known. But for the purpose of this article I will summarise our current rights as follows:

  • There are no laws preventing photography in a public place, or in any place where a landowner permits photography. There is no right of privacy in a public place in the UK, and any person may engage in photography providing they are not harassing any individual

  • There is no data protection issue preventing a person from taking pictures of identifiable individuals in a public place, providing you do not intend to use those images commercially to advertise something, which would generally require a signed release. As of 2018 introduction of GDPR legislation means caution should be taken in publishing any images which include certain forms of biometric data. However the images may be published and sold for newsworthy, educational or artistic purposes

  • There are no separate laws governing the photography of minors

  • There are no laws preventing a photographer or any person from taking pictures of an incident or of police personnel (or of members of the Armed Forces) however a police officer is entitled to ask you to justify your actions under Section 58A of the Terrorism Act

  • A police officer (or PCSO in uniform) may at any time require that you stop and account for yourself. You are not required to give a police officer your name and address and the officer does not have the power to detain you. A stop and search is more serious and requires reasonable suspicion that you are acting in connection with terrorism or that there is sufficient intelligence to suggest you are carrying stolen or prohibited articles, or that you are about to commit a public order offence. There must be an objective basis for that suspicion based on facts, information, and/or intelligence which are relevant to the likelihood of finding an article of a certain kind or, in the case of searches under section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000, to the likelihood that the person is a terrorist

  • Broadly, PCSOs have the following powers: Issuing of fixed penalty notices (for example riding on footpath, dog fouling, litter); Power to confiscate alcohol, drugs and tobacco; Power to demand the name and address of a person acting in an antisocial manner; Power of entry to save life or prevent damage; Removal of abandoned vehicles; Powers to search property and individuals in matters relating to terrorism (with a police officer)

  • Nobody, including the police, has the right to see your pictures or delete them, however under S43 of the Terrorism Act officers do have the power to view images provided there is reasonable suspicion that the images are of a kind that could be used in connection with terrorism, and under Section 43 officers may seize articles which the officer reasonably suspects may be used in connection with an act of terrorism. Officers do not have the powers to delete images without a Court Order. If you are searched, reasonable suspicion must exist that you are connected with an act of terrorism, or that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, or that you have or might commit a public order offence. In addition an officer may search you if there is sufficient intelligence to suggest you are carrying a stolen or prohibited article. The act of photography alone is not sufficient to place a person under suspicion.

    Section 44 powers were repealed in June 2010 in an attempt to restrict the widespread abuse of these powers. Following review and under the new amended system police chiefs can still request authorisation to use similar authority as Section 47A powers which allow a senior police officer to authorise a time and geographically limited power (limited to 14 days) for officers to stop and search indi­viduals without suspicion if the sen­ior officer “reasonably suspects that an act of terrorism will take place” in that area. This is margin­ally different from Section 44 in that there must now be ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an act of terrorism will occur.

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