Parliament Square protesters evicted: analysis of judgment

30 June 2010 by

The Mayor of London v Hall & Ors [2010] EWHC 1613 (QB) (29 June 2010) – Read judgment

The Mayor of London has won a court order to evict a camp of protesters from Parliamentary Square, with the High Court stating that his response to the protest was proportionate and not a breach of the protesters’ human rights.

The protesters have gained a temporary reprieve by appealing the decision, and according to their website have therefore delayed their eviction until at least 4pm on Friday 2 July

As we posted earlier this month, during the build-up to the General Election a number of protesters erected tents and flags in Parliament Square, a green outside the Houses of Parliament. The protesters named the site “Democracy Village”. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, launched an action for possession against the protestors, who he claimed were trespassing on Parliament Square.

No breach of human rights

The protesters made two main arguments in respect of human rights. First, that their Article 6 rights to a fair trial had been breached as they had not had enough time to prepare for the trial. Mr Justice Griffith Williams made short shrift of that argument, saying that:

It is the Court’s duty to keep under review a party’s complaint that his or her Article 6 rights have been breached and I have done so – nothing occurred during the course of the hearing to cause me to revisit my decision to refuse the applications for an adjournment; I was, and remain satisfied that Mr Haw, Mrs Sweet and Mr Holmes were able to address the issues and defend the claims being made against them.

The protesters’ second human rights argument was that stopping the protest would breach their Article 10 (freedom of expression) and/or Article 11 (freedom of assembly) rights. The crucial question for the judge was whether the eviction of the protesters would be proportionate; in other words, whether the public good in preventing the protest would outweigh the restrictions the eviction would place upon the protesters’ rights to protest and free expression.

The Mayor’s action was based on the law of possession. Unless permission is granted, there can be no right to camp or to demonstrate or to do anything prohibited by byelaws, which includes there being no right to impede the lawful use by members of the public who access the square as visitors. (para 104). This is, however, subject to any defence based upon human rights.

Article 11(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

The right is qualified, however, as is the cases with many of the rights under the Convention. It is possible to restrict the right if that restriction is “prescribed by law, necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 10, the right to freedom of expression, is similarly qualified, and as such can be restricted if, amongst other things, that restriction is “prescribed by law … necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others”.

A protest too far

Mr Justice Griffith Williams ultimately found that the protesters’ rights had not been breached. He said at para 130:

In my judgment, the byelaws are clear in their effect – there is no prohibition on camping, making public speeches and organising or taking part in an assembly; all that is required in authority to do so. That there is no blanket ban is apparent – demonstrations have taken place regularly and the Mayor is prepared to consider a request for camping in appropriate cases … If there should be a need for an urgent and immediate protest, the evidence (paragraph 28), which I accept, is that an application can be made and considered.

The key point for the judge was that the indefinite nature of the protest simply could not be justified when balanced against the problems it had created for other members of the public, even in light of the social importance of some of the issues which were being protested. He said he was satisfied that “there is a pressing social need not to permit an indefinite camped protest on PSG for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others to access all of PSG and to demonstrate with authorisation but also importantly for the protection of health – the camp has no running water or toilet facilities – and the prevention of crime – there is evidence of criminal damage to the flower beds and/of graffiti, as well as other related unlawful activity

He was also concerned that Democracy Village was “acting as a magnet attracting the homeless who are taking advantage of the lack of control and there is heavy drinking.” He rejected the protesters’ arguments that “camping is a necessary component of their chosen form of protest”, stating that “just as the actions of those who seek to interfere with the exercise of a Convention right must be proportionate, so must the actions of those who exercise such rights.”

One last protest?

The protesters are now lodging their appeals. It seems unlikely, however, that if they are granted permission to petition the Court of Appeal that they will find more success there.

Mr Justice Griffith Williams addressed the protesters’ human rights arguments with respect, but he was also entirely unconvinced that a protest of this nature and scale could justify the semi-permanent occupation of a prominent piece of public land. The rights of the campers to protest and free expression had to be balanced against those of the general public.  The judge was also clearly concerned at problems with hygiene and crime which had arisen. These are more practical problems which could potentially be remedied, but they must be considered as part of the question of proportionality.

Mr Justice Griffith Williams ultimately made clear that his decision did not amount to a blanket restriction on citizens’ rights to protest, either generally or on Parliament Square itself. Rather, this particular protest had gone too far and for too long, and must therefore be brought to an end.

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