XR demands answers on how protests will be policed after Supreme Court defends disruptive demonstrations

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Police officers escorting a climate activist during protests in April 2019 (AFP/Getty)
Police officers escorting a climate activist during protests in April 2019 (AFP/Getty)

Extinction Rebellion has demanded to know how its upcoming demonstrations will be policed after the Supreme Court ruled that protest can be a “lawful excuse” to block roads under human rights law.

Thousands of people across the UK are expected to join a two-week campaign of civil disobedience starting on 23 August, which will target the City of London as an “arch-financier” of carbon emissions.

During the climate activism group’s previous actions, the Metropolitan Police responded to disruption to transport and businesses by arresting Extinction Rebellion demonstrators en masse, with the number of arrests revealed by the Met to have totalled 3,762.

But in a letter seen by The Independent, the activists warned Scotland Yard commissioner Dame Cressida Dick that the recent ruling by Britain’s top court could lead to claims of “unlawful arrest” if police are deemed to “disproportionately interfere with a citizen’s rights of expression and assembly”.

Prosecutors have recently been forced to review a host of cases involving Extinction Rebellion protesters in light of the ruling, after a number of demonstrators who had been prosecuted for highway obstruction – the offence with which hundreds of the group’s activists were charged – successfully appealed to have their convictions quashed at the Old Bailey.

Presiding over one such acquittal on 4 August – during which the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) presented no evidence against 65-year-old Robert MacQueen – Judge Mark Dennis QC said there seemed to be a “fundamental problem” with Extinction Rebellion appeals.

Judge Dennis said prosecutors had not “grasped” the effect of the Supreme Court ruling on 25 June, which saw the acquittal of protesters who had blockaded a London arms fair in 2017, or the “basic human rights point that has been there for a very long time”.

In its letter to the Met, Extinction Rebellion questioned, in light of the ruling, how the force intends to adapt its tactics and which powers it will be relying on to police the upcoming protests, which the group is calling the “Impossible Rebellion”.

The activists also asked how the ruling would affect the force’s approach to “pre-emptive arrests” and seizures of equipment, applications for warrants and surveillance, the size of the police response, and the imposition of section 12 and section 14 orders – which grant police extra powers to control “public assemblies”.

While both kinds of order have been used – on one occasion “unlawfully” – during previous protests, officers have also pre-emptively raided Extinction Rebellion warehouses and other associated locations in the past, most recently in the lead-up to a demonstration in June. A dozen people were arrested, and items were confiscated from the premises.

With the Met confirming this week that it had brought forward 1,938 prosecutions of Extinction Rebellion protesters, 73 per cent of which it said had resulted in convictions, the group also questioned how the Supreme Court ruling would be applied when deciding which offences to prosecute or to refer to the CPS.

Speaking during a press briefing on the upcoming protests, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist said the ruling and subsequent wave of overturned convictions “do not preclude officers from taking action to prevent disruption to London’s road network where that obstruction is wilful and unreasonable”.

“These cases have rightly prompted questions regarding how police officers will respond and act in the event protesters cause disruption to road networks in London,” DAC Twist said, adding that the “consequence of these cases has been comprehensively considered by teams at the Met”.

In a further press release on Friday, Scotland Yard said it was “developing a comprehensive policing plan”, with DAC Twist saying officers “will look to engage with organisers from Extinction Rebellion, hoping to minimise, where possible, any disruption to London’s communities”.

Specialist policing teams will also be on standby who are able to manage safely protesters who have built, or locked themselves to, complicated structures, he said, adding: “Like everyone else, Extinction Rebellion have the right to assemble and the right to protest.

“However, these rights are qualified and are to be balanced against the rights of others. They do not have the right to cause serious disruption to London’s communities and prevent them going about their lawful business.”

It comes as the government seeks to pass the Home Office-sponsored Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has sparked violent protests and has been labelled a step towards authoritarianism.

MPs on parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights have suggested that the clauses in the bill relating to protest – which criminalise demonstrations deemed noisy or a “nuisance” – are a direct response to Extinction Rebellion’s previous protests, which infuriated ministers but also preceded the government’s landmark pledge to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In its letter to Scotland Yard, the group demanded to know whether Priti Patel had given the Met directions on how to police the upcoming protests.

In June, a court heard that the home secretary had called Dame Cressida and the chief constable of Hertfordshire Police, Charlie Hall, during a protest at a Rupert Murdoch-owned printing works in September, urging Mr Hall to “expedite” the removal of demonstrators.

A judge ruled in July that Ms Patel had not exerted “improper influence” on police, who had “maintained their operational independence”.

Under the policing bill, Ms Patel would be handed the power to define “serious disruption” – a definition that will be referred to by police in deciding whether to impose conditions on protest.

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