Law Lords rule to Protect Freedom to Protest

Original article posted on Indymedia 14th December 2006

Anti-war protestors are today celebrating a ruling by the House of Lords that police acted unlawfully in turning them away from a demonstration and detaining them on their coaches for 2½ hours without arrests, violating their right to freedom of speech and assembly and freedom from arbitrary detention.

The police had argued, at the hearing in October, that they were in fact protecting the protestors’ right to life, by preventing 120 of them from reaching protests at RAF Fairford (Gloucestershire).

The officer in charge of policing the protests stated that, since the US military had reserved the right to use “deadly force” in the event of an intrusion into the base, “had a member of the public been killed or injured by one of the armed personnel guarding the B52 aircraft…the political consequences would have been extremely damaging to the coalition partners”.

Helen Wickham, a coach passenger, said: “I think it is deeply worrying that Gloucestershire police, confronted with the possibility of US troops shooting unarmed protestors, chose to defend the US use of lethal force over our right to protest. I wonder if there was pressure on them to do so.”

The protestors have always maintained that the actions of the police were both unlawful and unreasonable. Many have doubts about the legality of searches which took nearly two hours and included the seizure of a Frisbee and a bag of toy soldiers.

It was only once the passengers had reboarded the coaches after being searched that they were told they would not be allowed to continue to the demonstrations. The forced return, a 2 ½ hour journey back to London, was made without toilet breaks and under a heavy police escort “to prevent a breach of the peace.”

The ruling was welcomed as a clarification of a draconian power which Parliament has never debated or sanctioned and which many protestors feel is used inappropriately to stifle dissent.

Giving judgment, Lord Bingham said the case had “raised[d] important questions on the right of the private citizen to demonstrate against government policy and the powers of the police to curtail exercise of that right.”

They had done so wholly unlawfully in this case, their Lordships held, because the Human Rights Act had brought about “a constitutional shift” creating for the first time a right to protest which the common law had previously been “reluctant and hesitant” to acknowledge (para 34 of the ruling). Freedom of expression was “an essential foundation of democratic society” (para 36) and there had been no reason to restrict it in this case. Rejecting the police’s argument that suspicions about some of the coach passengers entitled them to turn back everyone, Lord Bingham commented:

“There was no reason (other than her refusal to give her name, which however irritating to the police was entirely lawful) to view the claimant as other than a committed, peaceful demonstrator. It was wholly disproportionate to restrict her exercise of her rights under articles 10 and 11 because she was in the company of others some of whom might, at some time in the future, breach the peace.”

This ruling will impact significantly on policing of future demonstrations and will have implications for the Austin/Saxby May Day 2001 cases against the Metropolitan Police to be heard early next year. On Mayday 2001, police detained thousands in Oxford Circus for seven hours to “prevent a breach of peace”.

Jane Laporte, the claimant in the case, was determined that the police’s actions should not go unchecked. She said today:

“The willingness of the police to bow to political pressure, by stifling dissent and arbitrarily detaining protestors in this way, brings the role of the police as facilitators of peaceful protest in to question. They should, as the judgement found, be the facilitators not suppressors of peaceful protest. I am delighted the House of Lords has said their actions were completely unlawful and a human rights breach.”

Jesse Schust, a passenger and legal observer on the coaches, said: “It is particularly ironic that the police violated our human rights by detaining us, when we sought to demonstrate against an illegal war that has devastated Iraq and left over 100,000 dead.”

John Halford, a public law and human rights specialist at Bindman and Partners, represented the campaigners. He said today:

“The House of Lords judgement is a wake up call for democracy. Under this government we have seen a sad and steady erosion of the rights that underpin democracy: those to express dissent and to do so collectively with others in public. The Lords have given a principled judgement on where the line should and must be drawn: peaceful protest can only be prevented in the most extreme circumstances which are very far from this. These campaigners wanted to protest lawfully against an unlawful war. The Lords have unhesitatingly said they had that right.”

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