No. 31 of #50cases.
No democracy is complete without the right of citizens to protest in public. But what happens when the right to protest clashes with the police’s duty to protect people and property from harm?
Lois Austin got the answer in tough circumstances. In 2001, she travelled from Essex to Central London to take part in an anti-globalisation demonstration of nearly 3,000 people. She had left her daughter at a crèche and planned to pick her up later in the afternoon. But the plan turned sour. The police cordoned off Oxford Circus and barricaded the crowds of demonstrators – a tactic known as ‘kettling’. Some of those caught up in the kettle were pedestrians who were not even involved in the protest.With every exit blocked off, and left without access to toilets or water, Austin was stuck. Almost seven hours later, the crowds were finally released.
Austin took legal action to challenge the police’s tactics. She argued that the police had unlawfully deprived her and others of their liberty. The British courts rejected her claim, so she took her complaint all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.Unfortunately for Austin, the European court also found that the police’s actions were lawful. The police’s tactics did not deprive her of her liberty – rather, they restricted her freedom of movement. And the police had the right to take the necessary action to protect people and property from criminal acts. This included forcefully containing protestors to prevent violence and maintain public order. However, the court made it very clear that the police could not abuse their powers to ‘stifle or discourage protest.’