Parliament Square anti-protest rules upheld at High Court


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The Independent Online

New rules preventing demonstrators sleeping near the Houses of Parliament were upheld by the High Court in a landmark ruling today.

Two judges rejected a test case human rights challenge brought by veteran peace campaigner Maria Gallastegui, who has been conducting an authorised 24-hour vigil on the East Pavement of Parliament Square in London since 2006.

Sir John Thomas, who is president of the Queen's Bench Division, sitting with Mr Justice Silber, said the rules were "plainly" lawful and did not offend against the Human Rights Act.

Ms Gallastegui, 53, a former coach driver who comes from Hammersmith, west London, said she was hopeful of overturning the ruling on appeal.

"I am hopeful that I can still win," she said after today's hearing. "The ruling today didn't surprise me really."

She added: "I'm not just fighting this case for me now. There's a lull in protest at the moment.

"This is for the future - for if another issue comes along and there is a critical mass of people who want to protest against, for example, another war."

Ms Gallastegui said she had been involved with the Parliament Square protest for 10 years and living on the site for six years.

Judges said Ms Gallastegui could not be moved until after a further High Court hearing Thursday next week.

At that hearing, lawyers for Ms Gallastegui said they would "probably" seek permission to appeal.

The new regulations under challenge came into force in December under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (PRASRA) and cover Parliament Square Gardens and the pavements surrounding it.

The legislation gives Westminster City Council powers to stop a "prohibited activity", including putting up tents or "other structures " that enable protesters to "sleep or stay for any period" in the area.

Refusal to obey directions to remove tents can constitute a criminal offence under Part 3 of the Act, and the police can seize the property of demonstrators.

The Home Office and the Metropolitan Police were listed as "interested parties" in today's application for judicial review.

Ms Gallastegui attacked the new laws for interfering with her property rights. She said they could also significantly interfere with her right to protest against "the folly of war and armed conflict", particularly the war in Afghanistan.

But the judges rejected her lawyers' arguments that, because she was legally authorised to continue her 24-hour vigil until April 2015, Westminster's decision on December 19 last year to enforce the regulations against her was unlawful and unreasonable

The judges also said they "unhesitatingly" rejected her claims that the new laws violated her right to freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Justice Silber ruled the laws were "limited and proportionate" and it was "plainly open to Westminster Council to conclude on the facts of this case that it was entitled to exercise its powers under Part 3".

The powers being exercised by Westminster Council can also be exercised by the Greater London Authority (GLA).

The new act also amends existing bylaws so that the council can seize noise equipment where it is being used to create a disturbance.

Westminster said that, unless today's ruling is overturned on appeal, the council would now remove tents, sleeping equipment and any other structures from the highway and pavement around Parliament Square.

This included those belonging to Ms Gallastegui - "the last remaining protester" - who obtained an injunction restraining the council from using its new powers against her until her legal challenge was determined.

Westminster Council leader, Philippa Roe, said of today's ruling: "This will be welcome news for the millions of visitors who come to Westminster, as well as those who live in the city, as our world heritage site can now be returned to its former glory and used by everyone.

"For too long this green public space has been blighted by tents and encampments which have restricted the use of publicly-owned land, but we have worked hard to find a solution to this problem without prohibiting the rights for free speech and protests."