Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Critical Mass' Victory in House of Lords

Police have no rights to block peaceful protests according to landmark ruling

Police have been told they have no power to control regular peaceful protests following a landmark ruling by the House of Lords.

Officers had warned cyclists gathering in London every month for the Critical Mass protest that they were liable for prosecution for failing to notify police.

However, the Law Lords ruled that since it was a regular protest with no specific organisers, it was not subject to controls.

The ruling will have an impact on similar gatherings around the country that face regulation by the police.

The Critical Mass protest has gathered in London every month for more than ten years. The colourful and often noisy gathering of up to 1,000 people began as a celebration of cycling but over the years has become a wider protest on environmental issues and against war.

However, the Metropolitan Police argued the protest was unlawful because no advance notice was given. They said the police needed prior notice of the ride's date, time and route and the names and addresses of the organisers in order to maintain public safety.

Critical Mass fought back, claiming that because the cycle rides are "commonly or customarily held" they are exempt from public order legislation.

Five law lords at the House of Lords agreed that the ride was a "customary procession". They said that since the protest is spontaneous and not organised by anyone it is not necessary to give the names of organisers or the route.

On the question of similar protests, the Lords said the legislation was not designed to restrict gatherings like Critical Mass.

Phil Michaels, the lawyer for Critical Mass, said it set a precedent for other types of protest that take place on a regular basis.

And following a crackdown on protests around the House of Commons in the wake of anti-terrorism laws, he said it had wider implications for free speech.

"This is a case in which the highest court in the land has upheld the right to protest peacefully and has said in essence that if those rights are to be curbed then it needs the clearest possible language from Parliament before that happens."

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