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November 6th 2019

Civil Liberties

‘Unlawful’ London-wide ban on ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protesters could open door to hundreds of legal claims

Andrew Petherbridge

Andrew Petherbridge

Legal Executive and Head of Civil Liberties

‘Unlawful’ London-wide ban on ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protesters could open door to hundreds of legal claims

A High Court ruling that the Metropolitan Police’s decision to ban protests across the city last month was ‘unlawful’ is highly significant and could now mean that hundreds of people may be able to pursue legal claims for damages for unlawful arrest and false imprisonment.

A High Court ruling that the Metropolitan Police’s decision to ban protests across the city last month was ‘unlawful’ is highly significant and could now mean that hundreds of people may be able to pursue legal claims for damages for unlawful arrest and false imprisonment.

Section 14 of the Public Order Act was used by the force after ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protesters largely shut down areas around Parliament and targeted other key London sites and Government departments, calling for urgent action on climate change and wildlife losses.

The order was put in place between 9pm on Monday 14 October until 6pm on Friday 18 October in a bid to restrict the protest action to Trafalgar Square.

The force said that 1,832 people were arrested during all protests, with more than 400 Extinction Rebellion activists arrested between the dates the order was in force.

More than 150 people were charged with offences during the protests.

Section 14 orders are quite rarely used, but are available to police forces which have advance notice of a big protest if they ‘reasonably believe’ there is the potential for ‘serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’.

However, Mr Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Chamberlain today concluded that such orders did not cover ‘separate gatherings’ – and therefore a city wide order had not been legitimate.

It is a decision which could have far reaching consequences relating to those detained, arrested and charged with offences, and with regards to policing of future protects.

In stating their findings, Dingemans said: “Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly within the meaning of … the Act.

“The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from 14 to 19 October was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it under … the Act.”

In my work as head of civil liberties at Hudgell Solicitors, we see many issues where there are ‘grey areas’ in laws relating to policing and in situations where public safety has to be considered against public rights.

Equally, we see many cases of forces overstepping the powers they have under the laws which are in place, and this has been such a case.

The law clearly supports the rights for people to express their views, to protest peacefully to hold people in power to account, and judges noted there are powers within the Act which may be used lawfully to “control future protests which are deliberately designed to ‘take police resources to breaking point’.

What the State cannot do is simply shut down protests, marches and demonstrations for convenience or because they feel it will cause a nuisance.

With that in mind it was a very bold move to ban the Extinction Rebellion protests across London for several days – a move which has now backfired.

Today’s ruling will have significance going forward, as it will certainly prevent such city-wide banning of protests in the future.

Police officers will have to deal with protests as they evolve, and this will mean that they have to plan ahead thoroughly to help people exercise their human right of being able to protest, and ensure they are carried out peacefully.

They will always have the powers to take appropriate action if protests and demonstrations do get out of hand, but quite rightly, they won’t be able to completely shut them down across an entire city, as was done last month, before they have even begun.

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