Protest rights

Liberty warns protest freedoms at risk under Attorney General’s proposals

Posted on 29 Jun 2022

  • Changes to protest trials will deter people from standing up for what they believe in, Liberty says in intervention in Colston Four trial
  • Liberty disputes Attorney General’s plans to reduce influence of jury trials in protest-related cases, noting juries are of ‘constitutional importance’
  • Liberty says Government sending ‘mixed messages’ about role of jury trials, with changes in Rights Removal Bill contradicting arguments in this case

Human rights organisation Liberty has warned that proposed changes to the way human rights can be enforced in legal defences pose a significant threat to the future of protests.

Intervening in a landmark legal case at the Court of Appeal today (29 June) to see if human rights defences can be used in protest-related cases such as the trials of the Colston Four. Liberty has argued that human rights are an essential part of our right to protest and that changes to this would risk undermining our freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The Attorney General Suella Braverman MP has brought the case to court, arguing that the issue of ‘proportionality’ is too complex for a jury to assess and that decisions about whether a conviction would interfere with a defendant’s human rights in protest-related cases should come from a judge instead. However, in its intervention, Liberty has said that jury trials regularly assess complex legal cases – such as on terrorism and murder trials – and therefore are qualified and capable to make judgments on cases like those of the Colston Four.

Liberty has stated that changes to this system will risk weakening everybody’s right to freedom of expression which will lead to more convictions of protesters and fundamentally change the way people can stand up for what they believe in.

The intervention takes place just one day after the Government’s controversial Policing Act came into law, giving the police broad new powers to impose restrictions on public assemblies and the ability to shut down protests for being too ‘noisy’. The Policing Act faced opposition from across society, including from senior policing leaders, a former Prime Minister, and saw more than half a million people sign a petition for the then bill to be dropped.

Liberty lawyer Katy Watts says: “Protest is not a gift from the state, it is our fundamental right. By removing human rights considerations from protest-related offences, it will lead to even greater deterrents for people to protest and stand up for what they believe in.

“The constitutional importance of a jury finding facts in a trial cannot be understated. Jury trials are used in far more complex cases than the ones the Attorney General has referred to the court, often ruling in cases of terrorism or of social policy, so it’s an overstatement to say a protest-related case is too complex for them. The Government is sending mixed messages about the role of jury trials, trying to weaken their role in cases like this which give verdicts they don’t agree with, while claiming to strengthen their role as part of the Rights Removal Bill. This is yet another example of the Government trying to rewrite the rules so only they can win.

“From restrictions on protest in the Policing Act and Public Order Bill, to ripping up the Human Rights Act, the Government is making it much harder for people to challenge them and to access justice. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the Government safeguards our protest rights.”

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