Defeat for Westminster peace campaigners

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The Independent Online

Peace protesters camping in London's Parliament Square Gardens today lost their Court of Appeal battle against eviction.

The demonstrators in the makeshift camp known as Democracy Village will now have to leave the historic site.

Last month, High Court judge Mr Justice Griffith Williams granted orders sought by Mayor Boris Johnson, but their enforcement was delayed pending an appeal to Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, Lady Justice Arden and Lord Justice Stanley Burnton.

Counsel Jan Luba QC argued that the mayor had no right to evict the demonstrators because he did not own the land, which belongs to the Queen, and had failed to prove any legal title to it.

Even if Mr Johnson could bring the proceedings, a court could not order possession because it would be incompatible with laws relating to rights to free speech and assembly, said counsel.

But the mayor's QC, Ashley Underwood, said Parliament Square Gardens is an open space which the public has a right to use, and that the judge reached a reasoned decision.

He said there was a pressing social need not to permit an indefinite camped protest on the site for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others to access.

In his ruling, Lord Neuberger said that the Greater London Authority Act 1999 showed that while bare title to Parliament Square Gardens was vested in the Crown, the mayor was given the power to do everything in relation to the land.

In his view, the mayor could rely on the Act to show not merely that he had a statutory right to possession of the site, and indeed a statutory duty to enforce that right, but, crucially, to demonstrate that while the Act conferred title on the Crown, it was a title which was his right and obligation to enforce in his own name.

He said it was important to bear in mind that it was not a case where it was suggested that the protesters should not be allowed to express their opinions or assemble.

It was not even a case where they had been absolutely prohibited from expressing themselves and assembling where, or in the manner, they chose.

"They have been allowed to express their views and assemble together at the location of their choice, Parliament Square Gardens, for over two months on an effectively exclusive basis.

"It is not even as if they will necessarily be excluded from mounting an orthodox demonstration at Parliament Square Gardens in the future.

"Plainly, these points are not necessarily determinative of their case, but, when it comes to balancing their rights against the rights of others, they are obviously significant factors."

Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster City Council, said: "We are delighted by this decision as we feel that the hijacking of Parliament Square, one of London's historic public spaces, needs to be brought to an end. We all support peaceful protest, but it is completely unacceptable for parts of our city to be occupied and turned into no-go areas by vociferous minorities, however laudable each cause might be.

"This decision will mean that ordinary Londoners and visitors can once again use the square."

A spokesman for the Mayor said: "In the case of the 'Democracy Village' protesters, the Mayor is pleased that the Court of Appeal has supported the High Court's decision that there are no grounds to appeal in this case and to return possession of Parliament Square Gardens to the GLA.

"The Mayor has won on all points made in his claim, and all defences failed, vindicating his position.

"The Mayor respects the right to demonstrate - however, the scale and impact of the protest, which has gone on since May 1, has caused considerable damage to the Square, which sits alongside a world heritage site, and has prevented its peaceful use by other Londoners, including those who may have wished to conduct an authorised protest.

"We would urge the protesters to respect the rulings of both courts and now leave the site peacefully."