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In a major victory for protesters, UK High Court rules anti-protest legislation unlawful

May 22, 2024 at 12:25 pm

Protesters take part in a rally in Whitehall in solidarity with the Palestinian people and to demand an immediate ceasefire to end the war on Gaza on the 76th anniversary of Nakba in London, United Kingdom on May 18, 2024 [Wiktor Szymanowicz – Anadolu Agency]

In a major triumph for human rights protesters, the UK High Court has declared the government’s anti-protest legislation unlawful. The court found that the law, which lowered the threshold for protest crackdowns to any disturbance deemed “more than minor” was enacted without proper authority.

The High Court’s ruling quashed the law following a legal challenge from Liberty, a prominent human rights organisation in the UK. The judgement, published yesterday, revealed that former Home Secretary Suella Braverman introduced the measures in June 2023 despite lacking the necessary parliamentary power.

Liberty celebrated the verdict as a “huge victory for democracy.” The Court concluded that the government had ignored parliament’s will by failing to define “serious disruption”, and instead broadened the definition to the point that police were allowed to intervene in protests where disruption was “closer to that which is normal or everyday”. Lord Justice Green and Justice Kerr noted that the government had overstepped its bounds.

The government has announced its intention to appeal the ruling, and the High Court has suspended the reversal of the measures pending the appeal outcome. Since the legislation’s enactment, numerous protesters, including climate activist Greta Thunberg, have been arrested under its provisions. Liberty has urged the police to refrain from using these powers and to pause prosecutions until the appeal is resolved.

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“This ruling is a huge victory for democracy and sets down an important marker to show that the Government cannot step outside of the law to do whatever it wants,” said Akiko Hart, director of Liberty. “We all have the right to speak out on the issues we believe in, and it’s vital that the Government respects that. These dangerous powers were rejected by Parliament yet still sneaked through the back door with the clear intention of stopping protesters that the government did not personally agree with, and were so vaguely worded that it meant that the police were given almost unlimited powers to shut down any other protest too.”

The Court also criticised the government’s consultation process as “one-sided and not fairly carried out,” deeming it unlawful. The consultation involved only supporters of the measures, excluding community and protest groups who would be affected.

“We launched this legal action to ensure that the government was not allowed to wilfully ignore the rules at the expense of our fundamental human rights,” said Katy Watts, a lawyer at Liberty. “It is not up to the Government to decide what causes people can protest on, nor is it right for the government to sideline both Parliament and the public in making these decisions”.

Watts pointed out that in recent years, the government has introduced a whole host of new laws which have tried to stop people from being able to speak up for what they believe in. Powers in the Policing Act and Public Order Act have criminalised the fundamental ways of protest, such as for being too noisy. “It is worrying that the Government is still planning to bring in more restrictions, including a ban on wearing face coverings at protests,” Watts added.

Shameem Ahmad, CEO of Public Law Project, echoed these sentiments: “The Court has agreed with Public Law Project and Liberty that the Home Secretary acted unlawfully by misusing her executive power to restrict one of our fundamental rights, thereby undermining the role of Parliament.”

This ruling will be seen as a substantial boost for pro-Palestine protesters and others advocating for human rights, affirming that the government must operate within the bounds of the law and respect the democratic process.

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