Protesters put ancient law on trial in Europe

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HELEN STEEL, one of the protesters who took on fast good giant McDonald's in the longest-running libel trial in English legal history, will today make a court challenge to the government over its 600-year- old breach of the peace legislation.

Ms Steel will appear before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to claim that her arrest and detention for attempting to disrupt a grouse shoot was a breach of her human rights. She is among six plaintiffs who are claiming that the breach of the peace law, which dates back to 1361, is being used by police to deny people their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The cases are being supported by the civil-rights organisation, Liberty. Philip Leach, Liberty's director of law and policy, said that because the law had never been defined by parliament, its meaning was vague and open to wide interpretation.

"This effectively makes it impossible for protesters to stay within the law," he said.

Ms Steel was arrested during a protest at a grouse shoot in Whitby, north Yorkshire, in 1992. She was charged with causing a breach of the peace and was detained for 44 hours to prevent any further breach. After refusing to be bound over, she was jailed for 28 days.

Also challenging the law in Strasbourg are three protesters, Andrea Needham, David Polden and Christopher Cole, arrested while distributing leaflets during a London demonstration against the sale of fighter helicopters. Another challenge will come from Rebecca Lush, detained after being arrested during a protest against the M11 extension in east London.

All the cases will now be heard in court, together with that of Sally McLeod, who is challenging the use of the breach of the peace law to justify police actions in a matrimonial dispute.

The European Commission of Human Rights ruled in April 1997 that there had been no violation of human rights in respect of the Steel and Lush cases but conceded that there had in relation to the helicopter protesters.

Ms McLeod is challenging the Commission's finding in 1997 that the police entering her flat to help her husband retrieve his belongings did not amount to a violation of her human rights.