OPINION - Met expresses ‘regret’ over protester arrests ahead of Coronation
Hard cases make bad law, so the legal adage goes. The point being that extreme examples rarely make a sound basis for laws supposed to cover more typical cases. But the converse can also be true – bad laws make hard cases.
On Saturday, six protestors from Republic, the anti-monarchy group, became the first people in Britain to be arrested under the wide-ranging Public Order Act, under suspicion of being equipped to “lock-on” – a tactic sometimes employed by campaigners to make it more difficult for police to remove them.
Republic chief executive Graham Smith was detained for 16 hours, before being released without charge after police acknowledged they were not able to prove whether he and other protestors had in fact planned to ‘lock-on’. The Met has since faced widespread criticism for its handling of protests, or what at times seemed more like its prevention.
The prime minister defended the police action under the new powers, which came into force last week, saying it was right for officers to have the ability to tackle “serious disruption”. Campaigners meanwhile said their actions were “peaceful”, and called the arrests “a dangerous precedent for us as a democratic nation”. The police have since expressed some pretty heavily caveated “regret”.
Writing in today’s Evening Standard, Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said: “While it is unfortunate that the six people affected by this were unable to join the hundreds of peaceful protesters, I support the officers’ actions in this unique fast-moving operational context.”
The issue isn’t really about the Coronation, but how we now police protest in this country, and the tension between a new law that as we have just seen, hands the state vast powers, and the longstanding right, conferred under the Human Rights Act, to protest. To be blunt, does that right still exist?
This question has not come from nowhere. When giving evidence to a House of Commons committee last year on the Public Order Bill, the barrister Adam Wagner warned that the proposed legislation “essentially criminalises peaceful protest”. For more, this piece by legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg is a useful guide.
I think it’s worth reiterating that the Met had a difficult job to do over the weekend, and officers were understandably skittish. The force will also not be without its supporters. I suspect many, both those lining the Mall and enjoying street parties around the country, were quite content to see some protestors sent to the tower for the day.
Not least because anti-monarchy protestors do not always make for the most sympathetic of cases. They’re not cool nor are they fighting for a habitable climate. Even those ambivalent to the hereditary principle tend to take a dim view of Republic. But sympathy ought not to determine the law.
Protestors were arrested on Saturday not for locking themselves to anything, or even threatening to do so, but for carrying equipment to secure placards. This is what the criminalisation of “serious disruption” looks like.
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