David Brownsey-Joyce discusses the future of Parliamentary Protests
With the decision by the High Court dismissing the challenge of veteran campaigner Maria Gallastegui, does this signal the end of protests at Parliament Square?
Marie Gallastegui was the sole remaining holdout following Westminster City Council’s use of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 (Act) to remove all structures and evict the protesters based on and around Parliament Square Gardens in January 2012.
She challenged the use of the Act on the basis that she should be able to continue her protest as she has been granted permission on a number of occasions to hold a 24hr vigil within an authorised site and that the Act would compel the end of her protest. This would be against her rights to freedom of expression and assembly, as she could not afford to travel between her home in Eastbourne and Parliament every day, thus she needs to have a permanent site on which to sleep.
The dismissal of the case will not lead to an instant removal of Maria Gallastegui as the court has ordered that Westminster City Council do nothing until she decides whether to appeal.
The Act itself does not mean that protesters cannot assemble within Parliament Square, in fact following Westminster City Council’s use of the Act to disperse the ‘Peace Camp’ there have been a number of day protesters assembling on the pavement, most notably Barbara Tucker who continues her vigil but does not use a structure on the pavement in which to sleep.
Protests take place on a daily basis around the area of Parliament, notably outside of Downing Street. They are right to do so and we should protect the rights of people to express their opposition to issues they feel passionately about. What we cannot allow is for structures to dominate areas that are designated for common use, such as the case of the Parliament Square Gardens which have been the sites of a permanent protest since 2001.
This test case could become the basis of local authority justification of action against protesters that use public land. This would allow Westminster City Council to possibly become one of the biggest users with the assumption that they can use this precedent against any group that setup large scale demonstrations that seek to include any occupation of land. City of London Corporation would undoubtedly use this precedent to avoid any repeat of the Occupy London site at St Paul’s Cathedral that took was erected in October 2011 and was evicted on the 28th February 2012.
However as one case closes (though it may reopen depending on whether there is an appeal) there will undoubtedly be another at some point in the future with a clever legal firm taking a new direction on how to defend the rights of protesters to have their voice heard.
As long as they do this there will be local authorities, public bodies and government departments employing other smart legal firms to fight their corner, but for the moment it does look like Parliament Square Gardens may finally be clear of tents, at least for a little while.
Case as laid out by the claimant, Maria Gallastegui, as specified within the decision notes of the High Course Case No: CO/12613/2011
i) Seeks a declaration that these provisions are incompatible with her rights under Article 10 and 11 of the ECHR as well as potentially those arising under Article 6 and Article 1 of Protocol 1.
ii) Seeks a declaration that the actual decision of Westminster to enforce these provisions in the Act against her in December 2011 infringes those rights.
iii) Claims an entitlement to continue her protest, because pursuant to section 134 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (“SOCPA”), she had been granted permission on a number of occasions by the Commissioner to conduct a protest from a specified site of the East pavement of Parliament Square since 2006. She says she is entitled under that authorisation to conduct a 24-hour vigil within an authorised site of 3m x 3m x 1m (but not within a specific site) within which she is required to contain her structure (“the authorised site”) under April 2015. Her case is that the authorisation means that she can still keep and use a tent in her site in Parliament Square for sleeping even though section 141 of the Act has repealed sections 132-138 of SOCPA with effect from 31 March 2012.
The case for the claimant is that the enforcement of Part 3 of the Act would compel her to end her protest because she could not afford to travel to Parliament Square from her home in Eastbourne every day to conduct her protest. She therefore needs to sleep at the authorised site. Another protester Barbara Tucker, who has previously camped in Parliament Square for several years, has remained present in the Square since 16 January 2012 exercising her rights under Articles 10 and 11, but she has not used either a tent or sleeping equipment. This provides an illustration that even those protestors who want to spend all day and night in Parliament Square may still be able to do so.