The Occupy London Stock Exchange (Occupy LSX) camp has attracted attention due to the controversial indecision of the St. Paul’s Cathedral authorities. Now that three leading clergymen have stepped down, the Cathedral seems to be unwilling to contribute to the protest’s demise. The City of London has recently taken the decision to “pause” its own legal action. It is curious that an apparently “serious” public inconvenience has provoked such deliberation amongst the authorities. Why haven’t the protestors been evicted already?
Such a surge of solidarity across the globe is a testament to the unifying power of peaceful protest. Unsurprisingly, such a divisive movement attracts cynicism and support alike. With the Eurozone on the brink of devastating collapse, one might feel helpless enough in the United Kingdom to agree with the protesters on, at least, the need to forge a new economic order; but aside from the moral debate, who will win the legal dispute?
The Metropolitan police force has the power under English law to impose conditions on a demonstration, breach of which may be an offence under Part IV of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Breach of section 14(1)(a) of the Public Order Act 1986 is also a criminal offence if it is “reasonably” believed that the relevant public assembly “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The police has been deliberating over the seriousness of the circumstances of Occupy LSX, but no definitive condemnation has materialised.
The Public Order Act 1986 (POA) created several other offences of which Occupy LSX must be mindful during its campaign. Section 5 POA criminalises the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. Section 2 POA carries a maximum of five years’ imprisonment for “violent disorder”, while section 1 POA punishes activities constituting “riot” with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years’ incarceration. The London Stock Exchange protest has, fortunately, remained peaceful, but there is concern that as the camp grows, so too will the risk of conflict with the authorities.
More of a problem for the Occupy camp in London this week has been section 130 of the Highways Act 1980. The highway authority must “prevent the stopping up or obstruction of that highway [if, in their opinion, it] would be prejudicial to the interests of their area.” Furthermore, if protesters are on private land and do something intended to disrupt someone else’s lawful activity, this is considered “aggravated trespass” under section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Neither of these provisions have been proved since the origins of the camp a fortnight ago.
With all of these restrictions on public assembly, the Occupy LSX camp is walking a legal tight-rope on private land owned by St. Paul’s and the London Stock Exchange. Of course, the camp is not without legal support; lawyers such as Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Paul Ridge of Bindmans LLP have spoken out for the demonstrators’ right to protest. The camp seems safe enough for now, since an announcement by St. Paul’s yesterday and by the City of London corporation soon thereafter. The Occupy LSX camp will now await further legal action in coming “days not weeks”. However, Mr. Ridge, made an interesting point when discussing the protestors’ legal position: “the land surrounding St Paul’s is not under single ownership, meaning the relevant landowners would need to act together”. This fact may or may not save this particular protest from eviction. What is certain, however, is that the legal status of the right to protest within the UK will be pulled more and more sharply into focus. Indeed, legal precedent highlighted by Bindmans LLP – including the so-called “constitutional shift” in Laporte – makes encouraging reading for Occupy LSX sympathisers.
Regardless, with the wealth of the City of London locking horns with the determination of some of the UK’s top public interest lawyers, over an issue concerning 21st century morality and liberty, the ensuing legal battle has all the traits of an epic. Hopefully, it will remain peaceful.