Civil liberties under threat

This post was contributed by Guy Collender from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

Legal experts analysed and challenged the controversial police tactics used against protestors in the UK as part of Law on Trial at Birkbeck. 

The lawyers emphasised the role of protest throughout history, and argued that heavy-handed policing and cuts to legal aid are undermining dissent. The police, it was predicted, are likely to increase their use of stop-and-search powers during the Olympics this summer. The presentations largely focused on kettling – confining demonstrators to a small area – and the response of the authorities to occupations. 

Professor Bill Bowring, of Birkbeck’s School of Law and the International Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, chaired the public event on 19 June as part of Law on Trial – a week-long series of legal talks. He began by explaining the School’s progressive and critical approach to the study of law. Bowring said: “We do not take law for granted as something that comes down from above with some sort of divine status. We interrogate it.”

Kat Craig, a solicitor at Christian Khan and Vice-chair of the Haldane Society, continued by highlighting how dissent has played a “fundamental and crucial role” in changing society for the better, including gaining the right for women to vote. However, she pointed out that current major cuts to legal aid and the exclusion of certain areas of protest law from such support are undermining access to justice.

Craig spoke about representing protestors engaged in litigation against state bodies, including the police and Home Office. In particular, she mentioned cases against the police use of kettling, which has become commonplace during demonstrations, including student protests, in recent years. She said: “Kettling is indiscriminate. I am firmly of the view that kettling is an infringement of Article 5 [the right to liberty and security of person, European Convention on Human Rights]. The House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights have disagreed, both saying that kettling is not a breach of Article 5.

Owen Greenhall, a pupil barrister at Garden Court Chambers and an Executive Committee member of the Haldane Society, referred to protestor occupations during his presentation. He briefly outlined the history of such events, from the Greensboro sit-ins at segregated food counters in North Carolina in the 1960s to the more recent protests in London in Parliament Square and outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

Greenhall highlighted the trend towards by-laws restricting certain activities in high-profile places, and the difficulty of challenging these new rules. For example, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 includes provisions for a “constable or authorised officer” to stop protestors engaging in “prohibited activities”, including using “amplified noise equipment”, erecting tents and using “sleeping equipment” in Parliament Square. A similar by-law has also been passed in relation to Trafalgar Square.

During the question and answer session, concerns were expressed by Craig about the likely increase in the use of stop-and-search in East London during the Olympics.

Listen to the audio recording of the presentations


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