Volunteers from Green and Black Cross out on the streets monitoring the policing of a protest in central London. PHOTO: Netpol

Whenever new police powers are introduced, it has been our experience that soon afterwards, officers will abuse them.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 includes wide-ranging powers that are poorly defined and that, throughout the year-long battle against the new legislation, were widely condemned as a threat to freedom of assembly and the right to protest.

Now the government plans to introduce a new public order bill in next week’s Queen’s Speech, hoping to reignite the culture war on “disruptive” climate campaigners by reintroducing a series of draconian anti-protest measures that were previously rejected by Parliament in January.

This is why, now the Act has become law and with more repressive legislation on the way, it is essential to monitor the way the police choose to restrict protests and to gather evidence and testimony to challenge violations of human rights.

On the streets, at protests across the country, it is independent legal observers – all unpaid volunteers – who are undertaking this vital frontline role.

New research by Article 11 Trust

However, an alarming number of legal observers interviewed for new research by the Article 11 Trust have spoken of repeated mistreatment by the police, including aggressive behaviour, unjustifiable threats of arrest and efforts to constrict their ability to monitor the policing of demonstrations.

New coronavirus powers in 2020 that gave police officers an unprecedented ability to limit freedom of movement on health grounds – and to act as though all public gatherings including protests were unlawful – seems to have made this mistreatment of legal observers even worse.

More than half of the women volunteers who gave their testimonies to the Article 11 Trust have spoken about misogyny from police officers and instances of gender-based harassment and discrimination, including cases of sexual assault.

These experiences are not, of course, unique to legal observers – they reflect the similar treatment of protest participants Netpol has previously documented at Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and anti-fracking protests.

Now the Act has become law and with more repressive legislation on the way, it is essential to monitor the way the police choose to restrict protests and to gather evidence and testimony to challenge violations of human rights.

Download this briefing on the report

Growing intolerance

The worsening treatment of legal observers runs parallel to a growing intolerance of social and political movements that challenge the government or corporate interests.

However, legal observers are not protesters – the United Nations Human Rights Committee has instead recognised them as having a “particular importance for the full enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly” and insisted that they “may not be prohibited from, or unduly limited in, exercising these functions, including with respect to monitoring the actions of law enforcement officials”.

The research report, “Protecting Protest – Police Treatment of Legal Observers in Britain” published today, highlights a reluctance at the most senior levels of British policing to accept this critical distinction.

The National Police Chiefs Council – the leadership of Britain’s police forces – will only say it is “aware that ‘independent Legal Observers’ are often present and identifiable at modern protests”.

As the Article 11 Trust report notes, “frontline officers should by now know that LOs are not protesters or stewards and are independent of the protests they monitor. Officers should also know that attempting to impose unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions on LOs is contrary to their legal duties to both facilitate and protect human rights”.

The fact that so many officers have a poor understanding of why legal observers are present at demonstrations seems to come from the very top.

Our Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights launched last year (and based on international human rights guidance) similarly argued,

“the police must ensure that independent monitoring of protests is treated as particularly important to the full enjoyment of assembly rights and ensure that even if a protest is declared unlawful, the right to monitor the actions of the police is not restricted”.

Netpol members Green and Black Cross aim to train more volunteers to meet the growing demand for a presence that campaigners feel helps to keep them safe.

However, today’s Article 11 Trust report challenges the police to fully comply with their human rights obligations and keep independent legal observers safe too.

The National Police Chiefs Council must end the kind of aggressive treatment this report has documented – and properly recognise that the right to monitor the actions of the police is an essential part of protecting human rights.

Netpol provided practical assistance to the Article 11 Trust in the course of its research, including help with contacting individual volunteers and legal observer organisations.