“Kettling" tactics used by the Metropolitan Police to contain crowds during anti-globalisation protests in 2001 did not breach human rights, European judges have ruled.
The European Court of Human Rights considered complaints by a demonstrator and several passers-by who alleged that being cordoned in by police for almost seven hours during the May Day demonstration breached their right to liberty.
It was the first major use of the controversial tactic by police in the UK, in which more than 1,500 people were held inside an area of London’s West End, without access to food, water or toilets. Kettling has since become a common, though still controversial, crowd control measure used by UK police, including in recent high profile protests against student fees, G20 and cuts.
Today's ruling is the first by the Court about the legality of carolling people to maintain public order. The judges, with a majority of 14-3, said the use of "kettling" on that occasion did not breach Article 5, which safeguards the "right to liberty and security".
The court found that the "cordon had been the least intrusive and most effective means available to the police to protect the public, both within and outside the cordon, from violence."
"Article 5 did not have to be construed in such a way as to make it impracticable for the police to fulfil their duties of maintaining order and protecting the public,“ the court ruled. It backs a House of Lords verdict in 2009 that "kettling" was a "necessary, proportionate and lawful" crowd control measure.
However today's ruling does not give police a "green light" to kettle at will, rather that the tactic should be used only in exceptional circumstances when there was a threat to person or property, and not to stifle or discourage public protests, according to Kat Craig of Christian Khan Solicitors.
The May Day case involved Lois Austin, who was taking part in the protest and three passers-by: George Black, who was on route to a local book shop, Bronwyn Lowenthal and Peter O'Shea, who were both on their lunch break. The four took the case to Strasbourg after losing their damages claims in UK courts.
Ms Austin told The Independent: "At the time of austerity, kettling should not be used to stifle people’s democratic right to protest over cuts or privatisation."
The Metropolitan Police Service said: “We are examining the content of the ruling to identify any future implications. We constantly seek to improve the tactics we use and any learning that we gain is built into future operations. Containment is a tactic of last resort, but sometimes it is the only way to prevent serious disorder and violence."
Earlier this year, in a separate case, the Met won its appeal against a High Court ruling over kettling tactics used during G20 demonstrations in 2009. In that case Hannah McClure, a student, and Josh Moos, a campaigner for Plane Stupid, challenged the legality of restraint methods used against them in April 2009 when they were contained by officers in the City of London.