POLICING public protest has at all times been tough. Current selections of the courts, nevertheless, have made it a complete lot tougher.
Is it any surprise that Holyrood and Westminster alike are attempting to tighten up the legislation? With COP26 solely a matter of weeks away – with all the motivation it gives to these disciples of disruption, Extinction Rebel – this can be a time not just for cool heads, however for clear guidelines, too.
But the state of our legislation of public protest shouldn’t be remotely match for goal. Partly, that is due to the altering nature of protest and the legislation’s lack of ability to maintain up. When the Public Order Act was written (in 1986), we knew about assemblies and processions, however not a lot concerning the occupy motion, about people chaining themselves to concrete blocks in the midst of the road, or about individuals clambering aboard fragile bamboo and cardboard buildings designed in order that, if the police transfer them, they may crash to the tarmac and injure themselves.
Our legislators don’t care sufficient about this as a result of, for them, there’s a simple get-out clause. The legislation permits a spot similar to Holyrood’s grand property to be a specifically designated “protected website”, that means that nobody “with out lawful authority” might assemble there. That’s a transparent rule, and admits of no exceptions.
What’s scandalous about Holyrood deciding to undertake that rule for itself is that it did so in secret, behind closed doorways, with not even a debate, by no means thoughts a vote. A brand new type of politics, anybody?
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However not in every single place might be designated a specifically protected website. And for the remainder of us, the courts have made such a hash of this space of legislation that it’s something however clear. The legislation is now that the police might take away protesters from obstructing the freeway provided that there are not any “much less restrictive various means” accessible to them and, even then, provided that to take action strikes a “honest stability between the rights of the person and the final curiosity of the neighborhood, together with the rights of others”.
So stated the Supreme Court docket in its most up-to-date ruling on public protest, the Ziegler judgment, in June. Ziegler and his associates had occupied a road outdoors London’s Excel Centre, blocking it totally, in an effort to disrupt the Defence and Safety Worldwide arms honest being held there. Ziegler’s mob had given no discover to the police of their intention to do that. It took the police greater than an hour and a half to chop the protesters free from the concrete into which they’d planted themselves. Throughout this era nobody may use the highway in query in any respect – it was blocked totally.
Now, for those who seek the advice of the statute ebook you’ll discover that this can be a easy felony offence. Part 137 of the Highways Act 1980 gives that “if an individual, with out lawful authority or excuse, in any method wilfully obstructs the free passage alongside a freeway he’s responsible of an offence”. But, due to the way in which these phrases have been twisted by pressure of misunderstood and misapplied human rights legislation, this provision not means what it says.
What it now means is that an individual shouldn’t be responsible of the offence of wilful obstruction if a court docket guidelines – lengthy after the occasion – that their proper to protest wanted, on one thing known as a “honest stability”, to be given better weight than the general public’s proper to make use of the freeway for what it was constructed for (that’s to say, for transferring from one place to a different). That is gobbledegook. It’s not what the European Conference on Human Rights was meant to imply, however it’s what it has come to imply by the hands of the human rights attorneys.
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The European Conference offers us the precise to freedom of peaceable meeting. It’s not an absolute proper – it’s certified. But the human rights attorneys have whittled down these qualifiers to such a degree that the all-important phrase “peaceable” now means subsequent to nothing. It’s not a peaceable use of the freeway to dam it. That’s an abuse of the freeway. Highways are designed to not hold individuals nonetheless however to permit them to maneuver. Stopping that motion ought to in no way be thought to be an act of peaceable protest. It’s wilfully disruptive protest. It stops individuals from going about their lawful enterprise, no matter what that enterprise is.
It’s no surprise that the police are up in arms about this ridiculous ruling. They’re rightly aghast, and are asking themselves how on earth they’re now alleged to go about their job of guaranteeing that public protest can occur – as occur it should, in a democracy – in a way that doesn’t intrude with different individuals’s proper to be left alone and to get on with their lives.
In Westminster, the UK authorities had already determined it wanted to revisit the legislation of public protest, even earlier than the disastrous Ziegler judgment. Its proposals had been debated within the Home of Lords yesterday. They’ve met with howls of hysteria from the human rights foyer however the reality is that the proposed amendments to the Public Order Act are modest certainly, and can do little to get to the center of the issue. Tinkering with the foundations about assemblies and processions could also be a obligatory first step, however a way more basic rethink of our legislation of public protest is required.
Don’t maintain your breath, nevertheless, for this might require each cautious thought and open debate. A lot simpler for politicians to cover – to designate their workplaces websites of particular safety, thereby pushing protest away from locations similar to Holyrood’s sprawling property and onto the roads and the streets the place the remainder of us are simply attempting to go about our enterprise.
Our columns are a platform for writers to precise their opinions. They don’t essentially characterize the views of The Herald.
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