Liberty seeks judicial review over excessive searching of peaceful protesters

07 October 2011

Liberty is today seeking a judicial review of the decision by the Metropolitan Police to search dozens of peaceful protesters en route to a non-violent demonstration at an Essex oil refinery.

The human rights organisation is acting for Dave Howarth, who travelled with friends from Birmingham to London to take part in the protest. The group boarded a train at Fenchurch Street station – along with other peaceful protesters – bound for Coryton. A large number of police officers lined the platform before boarding the train and searching Mr Howarth and his friends – along with everyone else onboard who looked at all like protesters.

The police searches – conducted under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 – revealed absolutely nothing. Meanwhile one of Mr Howarth’s friends overhead an officer involved claiming police were “only doing what they were told”. Following the search the group continued on to Coryton Refinery where they took part in the peaceful non-violent protest as planned before later returning to Birmingham.

Liberty is seeking a High Court ruling that the Metropolitan Police action was unlawful. The police claimed they had information suggesting protesters were carrying molasses – which resembles oil – and might use it to damage property. But they were also told it was in large containers – yet officers searched people’s wallets. The searches of so many people on their way to a peaceful protest were disproportionate. In addition evidence also suggests officers who conducted the searches considered themselves to be acting under instruction rather than making their own individual decisions as to whether the searches were justified.  

James Welch , Legal Director for Liberty, said:

“The right to protest is fundamentally important in a democracy. While the police play in important role in ensuring that demonstrations remain peaceful, they need to avoid action that will have a chilling effect on the right to protest. The blanket searching of so many protesters was completely over the top.”

Contact: Liberty’s press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128



 1. Article 11 of the Human Rights Act protects the right to protest and freedom of association. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. This is a right closely linked to the right to freedom of expression. It provides a means for public expression and is one of the foundations of a democratic society. The right applies to protest marches and demonstrations, press conferences, public and private meetings, counter-demonstrations, ‘sit-ins’, motionless protests etc. The right only applies to peaceful gatherings and does not protect intentionally violent protest. There may be interference with the right to protest if the authorities prevent a demonstration from going ahead; halt a demonstration; take steps in advance of a demonstration in order to disrupt it; and store personal information on people because of their involvement in a demonstration. The right to peaceful assembly cannot be interfered with merely because there is disagreement with the views of the protesters or because it is likely to be inconvenient and cause a nuisance or there might be tension and heated exchange between opposing groups. There is a positive obligation on the State to take reasonable steps to facilitate the right to freedom of assembly, and to protect participants in peaceful demonstrations from disruption by others. Article 11 is a qualified right and as such the right to protest and the freedom of association may be limited so long as the limitation is prescribed by law, is necessary and proportionate and pursues a legitimate aim, namely: the interests of nation security or public safety; the prevention of disorder or crime; the protection of health or morals; or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The requirement to give notice of plans to stage an assembly in advance will not necessarily breach the right to protest as long as notification doesn’t become a hidden obstacle to exercising freedom of assembly. Article 11(2) also states that this right will not prevent lawful restrictions being placed on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, the police or the administration of the State.  However, this has been narrowly interpreted to require convincing and compelling reasons for any such restrictions to be valid.