Protest rights


Posted on 28 Sep 2022

  • Court rules human rights defences should only be considered in ‘minor, low value’ protest cases
  • Liberty says judgment creates a new threshold that in some cases weakens protest rights, and might have meant Colston Four were convicted, not acquitted
  • Liberty has called for the Government to scrap its proposed Public Order Bill which it says will be a further ‘hammer blow’ to protest freedoms

Human rights group Liberty has said today’s ruling from the Court of Appeal, which found that human rights defences should only be considered by courts in protest-related cases if the damage is ‘minor’ and ‘low-value’, puts a threshold on when people can enact their human rights.

In its ruling today (Wednesday 28 September), the Court of Appeal stated that the ability to use human rights defences in protest-related trials, as were used by the Colston Four when acquitted by a jury trial earlier this year, would now only be available in limited cases.

This threshold would depend on the perceived level of violence and cost of damage involved. For example, human rights defences might still be extended to anyone accused of causing temporary damage, such as chalking or graffitiing slogans on buildings.

However, the Court ruled that due to the ‘high value’ of the statue of Edward Colston and the manner in which it was brought down, which it described as ‘violent’, defendants in cases around similar incidents in the future would not be able to use human rights defences as the Colston Four did.

Liberty welcomed the ruling that some protest-related cases will be able to rely on human rights defences, but argued that this ruling is significant and will discourage people from continuing to stand up for causes they believe in.

Liberty intervened in this landmark legal case in June 2022. The case, brought by the former Attorney General Suella Braverman, looked specifically at the ways human rights were used in the trials of the Colston Four, and if human rights defences can be considered in protest-related trials in the future.

Responding to the judgment, Liberty said that everyone should be able to invoke their human rights in a legal defence.

Liberty has again called for protest rights to be safeguarded, and for the Government to drop its proposals in the Public Order Bill which it says will be a further ‘hammer blow’ to the right to protest. Among the proposals that will be going through Parliament this year are plans to criminalise locking-on and to give additional powers for suspicion-less stop and search against protesters. Protest rights have already been severely weakened with the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act earlier this year.

Liberty lawyer Katy Watts said:

“Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the State. Today’s judgment puts a threshold on when people can enact their human rights in a legal case, and takes away vital protections that empower everyone to be able to stand up for what they believe in.

“We are disappointed that the Court has said that that human rights are not always linked to acts of protest. By placing weight on the value of an object in deciding if human rights can be taken into account, we feel that the court is shifting the balance too far away from our essential human rights.

“In recent years we have seen this Government chip away at our protest rights. From restrictions on protest in the Policing Act to further attacks in the Public Order Bill – which rehashes the draconian measures thrown out in the Act, including protest banning orders and expansions of stop and search powers – the Government is making it much harder for people to challenge them and to access justice.

“The Public Order Bill, if passed, will be a hammer blow to protest rights that builds upon the damage of both the Policing Act and today’s ruling. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the Government safeguards our protest rights.”

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