While campaigners celebrated last week’s High Court decision that the Met’s decision to bring Extinction Rebellion action in the capital to an end was unlawful – a “very useful” clarification of police powers, according to Sadiq Khan – a new poll suggests a majority of Londoners might take a different view.
Just one in five Londoners support the way the climate change protestors are going about getting their message across, according to a YouGov poll for the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London.
In a victory for high-profile claimants, including Green MP Caroline Lucas, the court ruled that the Met did not have the legal power to impose what amounted to a blanket London-wide ban on the protests.
The case hinged on the meaning of Section 14 (1) of the Public Order Act 1986, the statute the Met relied on when issuing its instruction that “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’…must now cease their protest(s).”
The 1986 Act created the first ever powers in English law to regulate “assemblies” as opposed to marches, empowering the “senior officer…at the scene” to impose conditions – where an assembly could be held, or continue to be held, how long it should last, and how many people could take part – if they “reasonably” believed the assembly might “result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”.
It was agreed by all sides that Met superintendent Duncan McMillan, overseeing police operations at the time, had grounds for that reasonable belief, and that Extinction Rebellion were coordinating “separate gatherings or events at different times and places…and would continue to do so from 14 to 19 October 2019”. Even after the instruction to cease, they “continued to use tactics of evasion and moving between locations and then carry out actions to cause further disruption”.
But the Met’s argument that these coordinated protests amounted to “one public assembly taking place in different locations over the whole of the Metropolitan and City of London police areas,” was at odds with the law, the judges found.
The power to impose conditions on “public assemblies” did not extend beyond a “single gathering of people in a particular place…Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if co-ordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not one public assembly within the meaning of the Act.”
While there was a separate power to impose conditions on “an assembly intended to be held” as well as one already underway, that power could only be exercised by the Met commissioner in person, in writing. The extent of that power was not before the court.
“This judgment is a timely reminder to those in authority facing a climate of dissent; the right to protest is a long-standing fundamental right in a democratic society that should be guarded and not prohibited by overzealous policing,” said human rights lawyer Jules Carey in a statement from solicitors Bindmans, who represented the claimants.
Speaking on LBC radio after the judgment, Mayor Khan reminded listeners that he had expressed his concerns about the police tactic at the time: “I’ve said for some time that there is a climate emergency, and people should have the right to protest. Now the police are clear what the law is, and they will make sure lessons are learned going forward”.
A City Hall statement confirmed that Khan would now be “seeking further assurances from the Met…to ensure future decisions are robust and that they will continue to uphold the right to peaceful and lawful protest.”
Meanwhile the Met has defended its tactics as “both reasonable and proportionate” after a “week of serious disruption” which saw almost 8,000 Met officers and a further thousand from outside London deployed, at a cost of £24 million.
The case highlighted that “policing demonstrations like these, within the existing legal framework, can be challenging,” said assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave, while Met commissioner Cressida Dick has already held discussions with the Home Office over possible changes to the law.
The current law may be further tested if similar action ensues – and a hardening of public opinion could see the latest High Court victory turning out to be just round one in a new battle over the right to protest.
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