Merseyside Police is accused of ignoring the standard practice, adopted by most UK police forces, of acknowledging that independent legal observers are not the same as protesters – and of justifying this on the basis of the way those monitoring a protest in Liverpool were dressed.
During a recent English Defence League (EDL) march and counter demonstrations against it on Saturday 3 June, legal observers who are part of Green and Black Cross‘ national network of volunteers who monitor the policing of protests were out on the streets near the city’s Lime Street station. As always, they were clearly identified by their familiar fluorescent orange bibs. According to media reports, there were over 200 officers and 25 riot vans deployed on the day.
As counter-demonstrators gathered, legal observers were told a Section 14 notice, imposing conditions on public assembly and giving police the power to order protesters to confine their protest to a certain place, had been issued. They were then instructed to join protesters in a designated protest area for members of Unite Against Fascism, one of the groups opposing the EDL march.
The legal observers tried to explain that they were not protesters, were not taking part in any protest and were present only to observe and record the actions of the police. An inspector informed them, however, that as part of the planning of the operation the Silver Commander, Merseyside Police’s Deputy Chief Constable Carl Foulkes, had issued an instruction that officers should consider legal observers as “left wing protesters” and arrest them if they refused to follow Section 14 directions.
Those involved in monitoring policing on the day have told Netpol that officers attempting to carry out this instruction “had said they could identify legal observers as protesters by the way they were dressed”. One officer told a legal observer, “I can identify you as being a protester by what you are wearing and I have seen you previously in the day”.
Netpol was also told that legal observers felt Merseyside Police officers were very aggressive towards them and looking to make arrests. One was stopped a number of times whilst handing our basic legal rights information. In contrast, we heard that officers from other forces present in support of the operation, including Lancashire Police and Greater Manchester Police, had received the same briefing but were far less interested in obstructing legal observers from conducting their monitoring role.
One legal observer was arrested for a breach of Section 14 conditions and eventually released, without charge, after nine hours in detention. We are alarmed to hear, however, that during the course of his interview, he was interrogated about his training as a legal observer and whether this was conducted by someone with a legal qualification – none of which has any bearing on the alleged offence he had been arrested for.
Legal observers trained and coordinated by Green and Black Cross play a vital role, by monitoring the actions of the police, in protecting fundamental rights to freedom of assembly. When they are clearly identifiable as non-participants in a protest, officers have a responsibility, one that is recognised internationally, to facilitate their presence. The Council of Europe and OSCE Venice Commission guidelines on freedom of assembly says “non-governmental and civil society organisations play a crucial watchdog role in any democracy and must, therefore, be permitted to freely observe public assemblies”.
Furthermore, as Tom Wainwright, a criminal defence barrister at Garden Court Chambers in London told us, “if the police, in order to hide themselves from scrutiny, try to impose protest conditions on those who are not part of a protest, they run the risk of facing action for assault and false imprisonment”.
We understand that the legal observer who was arrested has this week begun a civil action against Merseyside Police
It is unclear why senior officers were so reluctant to have the policing operation on 3 June observed and documented, or whether their antagonism towards legal observers will continue. Netpol is, therefore, seeking clarification from Merseyside Police about the force’s policy towards independent monitoring at protests.
If you would like to volunteer as a legal observer, find out more about training at the Green and Black Cross website.