Photography and The Law

Legal restrictions on photography.

In the United Kingdom there are no laws forbidding photography of private property from a public place. Photography on private land is not restricted if the landowner has given permission. However, landowners are permitted to impose any conditions they wish upon entry to a property, including forbidding or restricting photography. Two public locations in the UK, Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, have a specific provision against photography for commercial purposes without the written permission of the Mayor, or the Squares’ Management Team and paying a fee and permission is needed to photograph or film for commercial purposes in the Royal Parks.

Persistent or aggressive photography of a single individual may come under the legal definition of harassment.

It is contempt of court, a criminal offence, to take a photograph in any court of law of any person, being a judge of the court or a juror or a witness in or a party to any proceedings before the court, whether civil or criminal, or to publish such a photograph. This includes photographs taken in a court building or the precincts of the court. Taking a photograph in a court can be seen as a serious offence, leading to a prison sentence. The prohibition on taking photographs in the precincts is vague. It was designed to prevent the undermining of the dignity of the court, through the exploitation of images in low brow “picture papers”.

Photography of certain subject matter is restricted in the United Kingdom. In particular, the Protection of Children Act 1978 restricts making or possessing pornography of children under 18, or what looks like pornography of under-18s. There is no law prohibiting photographing children in public spaces.

It is an offence under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 to publish or communicate a photograph of a constable (not including PCSOs), a member of the armed forces, or a member of the security services, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. There is a defence of acting with a reasonable excuse; however, the burden of proof is on the defence, under section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000. A PCSO in 2009 cited Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to prevent a member of the public photographing him. Section 44 actually concerns stop and search powers. However, in January 2010 the stop-and-search powers granted under Section 44 were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

Following a prolonged campaign, including a series of demonstrations by photographers dealt with by police officers and PCSOs, the Metropolitan Police was forced to issue updated legal advice which confirms that “Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel” and that “The power to stop and search someone under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 no longer exists.”

It is an offence under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to take a photograph of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or possessing such a photograph. There is an identical defence of reasonable excuse. This offence (and possibly, but not necessarily the s. 58(a) offence) covers only a photograph as described in s. 2(3)(b) of the Terrorism Act 2006. As such, it must be of a kind likely to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. Whether the photograph in question is such is a matter for a jury, which is not required to look at the surrounding circumstances. The photograph must contain information of such a nature as to raise a reasonable suspicion that it was intended to be used to assist in the preparation or commission of an act of terrorism. It must call for an explanation. A photograph which is innocuous on its face will not fall foul of the provision if the prosecution adduces evidence that it was intended to be used for the purpose of committing or preparing a terrorist act. The defence may prove a reasonable excuse simply by showing that the photograph is possessed for a purpose other than to assist in the commission or preparation of an act of terrorism, even if the purpose of possession is otherwise unlawful.