Hundreds of Extinction Rebellion protesters may sue the Metropolitan police for unlawful arrest after the high court quashed an order banning the group’s protests in London last month.
In a judgment handed down on Wednesday morning, Mr Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Chamberlain said the section 14 order imposed during XR’s “autumn uprising” in October was unlawful.
Dingemans said: “Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly within the meaning of … the act.
“The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from 14 to 19 October was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it under … the act.”
However, the judges noted there were powers within the act which might be used lawfully to “control future protests which are deliberately designed to ‘take police resources to breaking point’”.
The case was brought by seven prominent supporters of XR: Jenny Jones, Caroline Lucas and Ellie Chowns of the Green party, the Labour MPs Clive Lewis and David Drew, the Labour activist Adam Allnutt and the Guardian environment writer George Monbiot.
Jones said: “This is an historic win because for the first time we’ve challenged the police on overstepping their powers and we’ve won. It’s great.”
Chowns, who was arrested in Trafalgar Square just after the Met imposed its blanket section 14, said she would be taking legal advice on whether to now sue the force for unlawful arrest.
She was delighted at the outcome. She said: “I think it’s very important that we’ve won because the police actions were both disproportionate and also very dangerous.” She said curtailing free protest was a slippery slope.
Kevin Blowe, coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), who was in court to see the judgment handed down, said that although it was a good decision by the court, it left the police with serious questions to answer. “Someone really needs to be held accountable for the decisions that they made,” he said.
The ban was implemented under section 14 of the Public Order Act at 9pm on Monday 14 October and lasted until 6pm on Friday 18 October. In the meantime, according to Metropolitan police figures, more than 400 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested.
In a statement the Metropolitan police’s assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave said the ban followed “unacceptable and prolonged disruption to Londoners”. The force said it was disappointed by the ruling and would consider their position, including whether they will appeal and spend more taxpayers money on their legal case, rejected on Wednesday by the high court.
Ephgrave said: “The decision to apply the conditions on 14 October on the Extinction Rebellion ‘autumn uprising’ protest was not taken lightly.
“After more than a week of serious disruption in London both to communities and across our partner agencies, and taking account of the enormous ongoing effort by officers from the Metropolitan police service and across the UK to police the protest, we firmly believed that the continuation of the situation was untenable.
“I want to be clear; we would not and cannot ban protest. The condition at the centre of this ruling was specific to this particular protest, in the particular circumstances at the time.
“The conditions which have been ruled on today were imposed under section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, and had the effect of making demonstrators face arrest if they continued to assemble to protest in central London past 21.00hrs on Monday, 14 October.”
The civil rights groups Amnesty International UK, Article 19 and Liberty criticised the issuing of the order as an assault on the right to protest.
Gracie Bradley, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, said: “This is a victory for protest rights in the UK. The Met’s Extinction Rebellion ban was grossly disproportionate and undermined people’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly. This ruling will help safeguard future protests from police overreach.”