Please note that the information on this website regarding photographers' rights and UK law must not be regarded as authoritative. It is written in general terms with a view to increasing general everyday understanding. However it is neither intended to provide authoritative advice nor to be used as guidance in specific cases. Anyone seeking authoritative advice regarding such matters, or anyone involved in a particular legal case, must seek the advice of a suitably qualified solicitor.
In an age when acts of terrorism remain an ever-present risk, photographers taking close interest in potentially sensitive buildings and locations have increasingly been challenged by police. Although this is understandable, there have been a number of well-publicised incidents where police officers have over reacted or perhaps been poorly informed of the relevant legal provisions. Some have cited The Official Secrets Act 1911 or The Terrorism Act 2000 (Section 44) when challenging photographers and perhaps demanding the deletion of images.
The Official Secrets Act 1911 is not really relevant unless a photographer is caught photographing the inside of a military aircraft or submarine, or some top secret document or facility. The Terrorist Act 2000 is intended to facilitate the questioning, and if relevant the arrest, of anyone planning or gathering information for an act of terrorism. Anyone stopped by police near a sensitive facility such as a bridge, power station, telecommunications mast etc is nevertheless well advised to co-operate with police and explain calmly the nature of the photographic work. Whatever the outcome of such a challenge, the police have no right to seize photographic equipment , confiscate memory cards or demand the deletion of images unless in the absence of a court order unless they suspect that images contain evidence of a crime.
National guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) state:
"There are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so.
We need to co-operate with the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help us identify criminals.
We must acknowledge that citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now filmed and photographed more than ever.
Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable and it undermines public confidence in the police service.
Once an image has been recorded, police can only seize the film or camera at the scene on the strictly limited grounds that it is suspected to contain evidence of a crime. Once the photographer has left the scene, police can only seize images with a court order. In the case of the media, the usual practice is to apply for a court order under The Police and Criminal Evidence Act for production of the photograph or film footage.
If someone who is distressed or bereaved asks for police to intervene to prevent members of the media filming or photographing them, police may pass on their request but have no power to prevent or restrict media activity. This should be understood as a specific limitation of the powers available under Section 43 of The Terrorism Act 2000."
ACPO's guidelines also warn that any police officer who deletes a photographer's images could face criminal, civil or disciplinary action. Section 44 of The Terrorism Act 2000 can no longer be used to stop and search photographers working in a public place.