Eco-warrior wins `right to assembly'

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The Independent Online
A WOMAN who gave up academia to become a full-time civil rights activist known as "Swampy's sister" yesterday won a historic House of Lords ruling on the right to peaceful assembly.

Margaret Jones, 50, who lives in a bender (a shack) in a barricaded warehouse near Bristol, where she is protesting against the Avon relief road, won her legal victory after being arrested outside Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, four years ago.

Dr Jones, a former lecturer in American literature at the University of the West of England, and fellow civil rights activist Richard Lloyd were arrested and convicted for "trespassory assembly" after gathering at the stones to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, when police clashed with travellers on their way to Stonehenge.

After the House of Lords upheld the pair's appeal yesterday, Dr Jones was celebrating in a public house. "We started out to protest the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act," she said. "We have ended up with the first assertion in British law of a positive right to peaceful assembly. It's far, far better than we could have hoped for."

At Stonehenge, Dr Jones and Mr Lloyd were arrested after they gathered with other protesters and draped banners over the perimeter fence with slogans such as "Never Again" and "Free Stonehenge". In anticipation of an anniversary protest, the Chief Constable of Wiltshire had obtained an order prohibiting trespassory assemblies, defined under the Public Order Act 1986 as a gathering of 20 or more people within a defined area.

Dr Jones and Mr Lloyd were convicted at Salisbury magistrates' court but began a four-year battle to overturn the decision. They appealed successfully in Salisbury Crown Court, but that ruling was reversed in January 1997 by the High Court. However, last October they were given leave to take their case to the House of Lords.

As part of yesterday's ruling, Lord Hutton said: "The common law recognises that there is a right for members of the public to assemble together to express views on matters of public concern and I consider that the common law should now recognise this right, which is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in this country, is unduly restricted unless it can be exercised in some circumstances on the public highway."

"From being only allowed to assemble at the whim of the police, we now have a positive right of freedom of expression which includes being able to come together peacefully," Dr Jones said.

Mr Lloyd, 28, said: "I just wish we hadn't had to go through a four- year legal battle to stand peaceably by a road."