Press Release from Bindman and Partners: 13 October 2004

Lord Chief Justice to rule on anti-war protest test case

Tomorrow the Court of Appeal begins a two day hearing in a crucial human rights test case about the rights of protestors. The court is presided over by the country’s most senior judge, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf.

The case involves an appeal from the landmark Divisional Court ruling in February this year the that the police had unlawfully breached the human rights of an anti-war protestor, Jane Laporte, who was detained and prevented from attending a protest at RAF Fairford in March 2003.

Ms Laporte was one of 120 protestors who was stopped, searched and asked to reboard three coaches headed for the air base in order to protest against the war on Iraq. Once abroad they were told that the Police believed a breach of the peace would occur at Fairford. The coach doors were then forcibly held shut and the protestors taken back to London under Police escort - a 2 ½ hour journey without a toilet break.

This, the Police argue, was justified because the 120 protestors were “well armed” with two pairs of scissors, “five home made shields”, a cardboard tube and a yacht distress flare.

No Act of Parliament was said to authorise what happened. Instead the Police rely on common law powers to prevent breach of the peace of the kind also deployed at Oxford Circus during the May Day protests of 2001. The judgement in Ms Laporte’s case was the first ever court ruling on the legality of such powers.

The Divisional Court found that Ms Laporte’s detention and forced return to London could not be justified, either under the common law or the Human Rights Act. Her right not to be arbitrarily detained (Article 5 of the European Human Rights Convention - which the Act makes enforceable in UK law) had been breached, as had those of the other protestors. Giving judgement Lord Justice May commented:

“for practical purposes none of the articles seized were to be regarded as offensive. Two pairs of scissors would not make much impression on the perimeter fencing of the air base.”

He added:

“the claimant’s enforced return on the coach to London was not lawful because (a) there was no immediately apprehended breach of the peace by her sufficient to justify even transitory detention, (b) detention on the coach for two and a half hours went far beyond anything which could conceivably constitute transitory detention such as I have described and (c) even if there had been, the circumstances and length of the detention on the coach were wholly disproportionate to the apprehended breach of the peace.”

However, the Court went on to rule that the Police had acted lawfully in turning Ms Laporte and the other protestors away from the demonstration, so there had been no breach of her Convention rights of freedom of assembly and speech, also enforceable through the Human Rights Act. Both parties were given leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal on the basis that the case involved an issue of general public importance.

John Halford is a solicitor at Bindman and Partners acting for Ms Laporte and many of the other protestors. He said today:

“The Divisional Court’s ruling was welcome - as far as it went - but there remains unfinished business in this case. No democracy can function without the right to protest and it is the duty of the courts in a democracy to protect it. We simply cannot see how the Police were wrong to detain but right to turn the protestors back - the justification offered for both was exactly the same. Nor was the Divisional Court’s ruling is consistent what the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly said on this issue: that ‘blanket measures’ curtailing one individual’s freedom of speech because others at a lawful demonstration might break the law breach the Human Rights Convention. It cannot be right for the Police to stifle protest, by preventing attendance at a demonstration, simply on the grounds that some who might attend might cause trouble. That would allow the Police to prevent any - and in fact every - demonstration taking place.”


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