Extinction Rebellion protest ban ruled illegal by High Court

6 November 2019, 10:17

More than 1,800 Extinction Rebellion protesters were arrested
More than 1,800 Extinction Rebellion protesters were arrested. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The London-wide police ban on Extinction Rebellion protests has been ruled illegal by the High Court.

The Section 14 order imposed by Scotland Yard to stop the capital grinding to a halt was "not legitimate," it was ruled on Wednesday.

More than 1,832 people were arrested and more than 150 were charged with offences. during the group's two weeks of action.

Protesters set up camp in Trafalgar Square, shut down areas around Parliament and targeted the Bank of England and London City Airport.

The order was issued under the Public Order Act to stop the group’s activists gathering in London, and was criticised by groups including Amnesty International UK and Liberty.

Announcing their judgment in London on Tuesday, Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Chamberlain said the Met had no power to impose the ban because the Act does not cover "separate assemblies".

Law firm Bindmans, which represented XR, said the Met now faces claims for false imprisonment from "potentially hundreds" of protesters who were arrested after the ban was imposed.

Lord Justice Dingemans said: "Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly within the meaning of ... the Act.

"The XR Autumn Uprising intended to be held from October 14 to 19 was not therefore a public assembly ... therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it under ... the Act."

However, the judges noted there are powers within the Act which may be used lawfully to "control future protests which are deliberately designed to 'take police resources to breaking point'" - one of XR's stated aims.

The Met used Section 14 of the Public Order Act initially to restrict the protest action to Trafalgar Square, but following "continued breaches" of the order officers moved in to clear the area.

They said they were "disappointed with the judgement" but that they would "carefully consider" the ruling.

Extinction Rebellion protesters occupied Millbank near Parliament
Extinction Rebellion protesters occupied Millbank near Parliament. Picture: PA

Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said: "After eight days of continual disruption we took the decision to bring an end to this particular protest, a decision which we believe was both reasonable and proportionate.

"It is not uncommon for conditions instructing protests to end at a certain time to be imposed.

"I want to be clear; we would not and cannot ban protest. The condition at the centre of this ruling was specific to this particular protest, in the particular circumstances at the time.

“The conditions which have been ruled on today were imposed under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, and had the effect of making demonstrators face arrest if they continued to assemble to protest in central London past 21:00hrs on Monday, 14 October.

“There is no criticism from me of the decision to impose the condition, which was made with good intent and based upon the circumstances confronting the command team at the time. It did in fact result in the reduction of the disruption.

"Nevertheless, this case highlights that policing demonstrations like these, within the existing legal framework, can be challenging.

“We will carefully consider today’s ruling”

Jules Carey, a solicitor from Bindmans who represented XR, said: "The ban on the XR protest was hastily imposed, erratically applied and has now been unequivocally declared unlawful by the High Court.

"The police have powers to impose conditions to manage protests but not to ban them.

"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."

The court heard the costs of policing the Autumn Uprising were in excess of £20 million.

The judicial review application was brought on behalf of Extinction Rebellion by a group including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, Labour MPs Clive Lewis and David Drew, and journalist George Monbiot.

Following the ruling, Ellie Chowns, a Green MEP arrested while the ban was in place, said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we have won this very important case, defending the right to peaceful assembly and public protest.

"The judgment in our favour shows that the police clearly overstepped the mark when they imposed a blanket ban on any XR related protest.

"It was clearly ridiculous to arrest me for simply standing in Trafalgar Square, a pedestrianised public space.

"This judgment upholds the right to peaceful assembly and protest, a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy.”

Mr Monbiot, who was also arrested under the ban, added: “This judgment is a vindication of those who have sought to defend our crucial right to protest.

"Non-violent civil disobedience is essential to democratic politics - in fact there would be no democratic politics without it.

An activist being removed from Trafalgar Square by police
An activist being removed from Trafalgar Square by police. Picture: PA

"The attempt by the Metropolitan Police to shut down civil protest was a direct assault on democracy. I am delighted it has been struck down.”

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said: “Today’s ruling confirms what we said at the time - that the police’s blanket ban on Extinction Rebellion protests was unlawful and a complete overstep.

“The sweeping, ill-defined and capital-wide ban sent the chilling message that basic freedoms in this country can be set aside when the authorities choose to do so.

“People are understandably deeply concerned at a lack of Government action to tackle the climate crisis, and the authorities should be ensuring that those demanding climate justice are able to participate in non-violent protests.

“There must be no repeats of this attempt to suppress legitimate non-violent protest.”