No. 14 of #50cases.
It’s the run-up to war in Iraq in 2003, and tensions are simmering. Protestors are out in historic numbers, most of them peaceful, some of them not so. The police are charged with keeping the peace on the streets. On the one hand, the right to protest is an essential feature of any democracy. On the other, so is respect for other people’s property and peace. How far can the police go in protecting the latter against the risk of violent protest?
Ms Laporte found out. She was hoping to attend a planned protest at RAF Fairford in April 2003. Among the group were members of the disarmingly named Wombles, an extreme anarchist group who had been involved in violent protest before. Before they even arrived, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire police had made use of public order powers to contain the event. Coaches carrying protestors up from London were stopped. Some hours later they were turned round and sent back the way they came, police motorcycle riders escorting them back and preventing them turning off – even to let passengers make use of motorway service stations to relieve themselves.
Ms Laporte claimed this treatment amounted to a breach of her right to liberty: she had been unlawfully detained on the coach, and been denied the chance to exercise her right to freedom of expression and assembly through protesting.
The court agreed. Although the police have both the power and the duty to prevent public disturbances, the importance of these rights to democratic society means that such disturbances need to be imminent before the police can use such powers to prevent people protesting. Risk alone is not enough, nor the police’s belief that what they are doing is reasonable: the ability to protest has to be protected.