Right to protest at party conferences challenged by ignorance
Iain Gould of DPP Law is a solicitor specialising in actions against the police.
Protesters at the recent Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham have been making their voices heard about, among other things, the proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham and job cuts. The right to protest is enshrined in European and English law, but, as specialist actions against the police solicitor Iain Gould explains, it can be easily undermined by police ignorance…
I was approached by Audrey White after she was involved in an anti-war protest at the Labour Party Conference in September 2008.
I learned that Mrs. White is an exceptional businesswoman who has travelled all over the world. Now retired and living in Liverpool, she has dedicated the last nine years of her life to campaigning against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking a prominent role in the Stop the War coalition. She is well regarded by the police, having taken an active role in organising previous demonstrations and working with senior police officers to ensure that protests were conducted peacefully and properly.
At the protest in Manchester, Mrs. White was invited to meet politicians as part of a delegation and acted as a steward due to her seniority. Knowing that publicity was important for the campaign, she had a banner-sized Bank of England mock cheque made up payable to the ‘Oil Companies and Arms Industry for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq- the sum of 12 billion pounds, the blood of one million Iraqis and the deaths of 300 British soldiers’ signed by Gordon Brown. She also wore a Gordon Brown facemask which she later shared with others. The publicity stunt was well received, with Mrs. White appearing at the front of the protest.
The protest went off without incident until near the end when Mrs. White was suddenly approached by a female police officer and ordered to remove the mask. When she declined, two female police officers pulled it off her head, dragging Mrs. White to the ground.
Mrs. White suffers from low bone density and injured her neck and back in the assault. The police confiscated the mask, but she was not arrested. She was in pain, upset and humiliated. Audrey told me that the Stop the War coalition is committed to peaceful protest. She was worried that the police’s action undermined this and gave the wrong impression.
The following day she formally complained about her treatment to Greater Manchester Police. As is usually the case, the internal investigation found against her. The police said that their action was reasonable, necessary and proportionate.
Mrs. White refused to let matters rest. She instructed me to pursue an actions against the police claim for damages and seek an apology.
The police denied liability on the grounds that they were exercising a power to remove disguises under s.60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This is intended to prevent people from hiding their identity where an officer of the rank of inspector or above believes that activities in his area may involve criminal offences. If used, it entitles the police to remove disguises using reasonable force.
The police claimed that they had intelligence that anarchists were operating at the Stop the War demonstration, and that teams of protesters were wearing masks to conceal their identity. Their security concerns were unfounded. My client, a 5 ft 2 in retired woman, was the only one who took a mask to the protest that day. She passed it to others, including her brother, as she felt that the photographs would look better if a man was wearing the mask. No known anarchists were involved in the otherwise peaceful protest.
On review of the police officers’ notebooks I identified inconsistencies. The most crucial of these was that the police officers did not state that they believed that the mask was a disguise for the purpose of concealing Mrs. White’s identity. She (and others who wore it) had been taking it in turns to wear the mask throughout the day without challenge from the police in attendance. There was no reason for the female police officers concerned to believe that she was attempting to conceal her identity.
By forcibly removing my client’s mask I asserted that the police had breached her right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998. In this view I was supported by the comments of Judge Newman in the case of DPP-v-Avery (2001) who stated that ‘the wearing of a mask can be a potent means of demonstrating in a lawful manner.’ Whether by ignorance or design, the police failed to grasp that wearing a mask in these circumstances is both legal and an exercise of the right to freedom of expression, including the right to express political opinions. By removing Mrs. White’s mask, they suppressed this fundamental human right, assaulting her in the process.
Although the police denied liability, following discussions with their lawyers they accepted that their officers were wrong to remove the mask. Greater Manchester Police have apologised in writing to my client for this and paid an undisclosed amount in compensation plus legal costs.
I am concerned that over the past few years there has been a steady erosion of our civil liberties. Matters are made worse when the police go over and beyond the extensive powers they now have. This case reminds us that we must all fight to preserve and maintain our fundamental right to freedom of expression of opinion.
Iain Gould is a solicitor specialising in actions against the police.