The Met must respect rights of Legal Observers at upcoming protests

In August 2022, the Article 11 Trust contacted the Metropolitan police seeking reassurance that it will respect and protect legal observers at upcoming climate demonstrations. Whilst the Extinction Rebellion festival of resistance was cancelled due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II in early September, another climate campaign group, Just Stop Oil, are planning significant action beginning this weekend, the 1st of October.

Legal observers are internationally recognised by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) as necessary for the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, which states that “it is a good practice for independent national Human Rights institutions and non-governmental organizations to monitor assemblies” (UNHRC, 2020. General Comment No. 37 Para, 6.).

The UNHRC emphasises the duties of law enforcement officials to “respect and ensure the exercise of the fundamental rights of organizers and participants, while also protecting journalists, monitors and observers” (ibid., para 74.) and stresses the right of “Human Rights observers to document any assembly including violent and unlawful ones” (UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, 2020. UN Human Rights Committee publishes interpretation on the right of peaceful assembly):

“They may not be prohibited from, or unduly limited in, exercising these functions, including with respect to monitoring the actions of law enforcement officials. They must not face reprisals or other harassment, and their equipment must not be confiscated or damaged. Even if an assembly is declared unlawful or is dispersed, that does not terminate the right to monitor”

Despite this, ground-breaking research by the Article 11 Trust, published in May 2022, revealed a culture of ignorance, inconsistency and hostility from police in Britain towards Legal Observers.

The Article 11 Trust remains concerned about attitudes towards legal observers for upcoming demonstrations in London. The Metropolitan Police have refused to respond to provide transparency about the way they intend to police both demonstrators and legal observers.

In May 2021, controversy around the arrest of four Black Protest Legal Support volunteers at a Black Lives Matter protest led to the Metropolitan Police dropping charges and acknowledging that Legal Observers “have an important role to play in providing independent scrutiny of protests and the policing of protests”.

Despite this, less than a year later in April 2022, their response to a Freedom of Information request from the Article 11 Trust said:

“The role of Independent Legal Observer (ILO) is not a formally recognised / accredited legal position and as such those acting as ILO’s are deemed to be members of the public. Via protest liaison teams the MPS seek to build a rapport and dialogue with all present”

Protecting Protest, 2022, p.13, emphasis added.

Transparency is even more important now that new police powers have been introduced by the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. A recent Freedom of Information request by the Article 11 Trust to the National Police Chiefs Council confirmed that there is no operational advice for the controversial new powers of the PCSC Act which include noise conditions on protest.

We are concerned there is already a pattern of senior officers failing to provide proper guidance, which will make it more difficult for the public to assess whether officers on the ground are fulfilling their legal obligations to protect Article 10 and 11 rights. It also makes it harder for human rights observers and the media to scrutinise whether the police are using new powers lawfully and proportionally.

The Article 11 Trust will continue to monitor, with concern, the policing of protest in Britain in the coming months.