Judges allow Parliament Square tent removal

 

The High Court has lifted an injunction preventing the removal of the last anti-war protest tent near the Houses of Parliament.

Judges said today that it would be "lifted immediately", leaving Westminster Council free to clear Parliament Square of the tent as soon as it is ready.

The injunction had been in place while veteran peace campaigner Maria Gallastegui challenged the legality of new bylaws giving the local authority power to remove tents and sleeping equipment from the road and pavement around the square.

Last week, High Court judge Sir John Thomas, president of the Queen's Bench Division, and Mr Justice Silber ruled the bylaws lawful.

Today, Ms Gallastegui returned to court to ask for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal on the basis that her case raised issues of general public importance and it was arguable that the High Court had got the law wrong.

Refusing permission, Sir John said: "Our view is clear - there is no merit in any of the points that have been made."

The court also refused Ms Gallastegui's request that the injunction allowing her tent to remain in the square should be maintained while she asked the appeal court itself to consider her case.

The judge said the court "had not the slightest doubt" that the injunction should be lifted immediately.

Ms Gallastegui has been conducting an authorised 24-hour vigil on the east pavement of Parliament Square since 2006 and obtained her injunction against the council preventing it from enforcing the byelaws.

Many have regarded protest tents in the square as an eyesore before the Diamond Jubilee and Olympics.

The judge said the new byelaws were not interfering with Ms Gallastegui's democratic right of protest - a right the courts "jealously guard".

He said: "The right to protest is not affected save to a very, very limited extent that the claimant cannot have a tent or other similar facility in Parliament Square.

"She can protest 24 hours a day without it."

Giving Westminster Council the all-clear to remove her tent, the judge said that only "minor harm" would result if Ms Gallastegui eventually won her case in the appeal court, when she would be able to set up her tent again.

On the other hand, not lifting the injunction would prevent laws enacted by Parliament from taking effect.

A large number of members of the public had also identified "significant material detriment to the area" while tents and sleeping facilities remained in the square.

"Therefore we consider the balance of convenience is overwhelming and we have not the slightest doubt that this is a case where the law should take its course," said the judge.

The case arose after the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act recently came into force and authorised the local council and police to remove sleeping facilities, including tents. They can also remove equipment used for noisy protests.

Ms Gallastegui said after today's ruling: "There is a little bit of sadness. We have put a lot of emotion into the camp, but this is not the end.

"We will continue to protest and we will go to the Court of Appeal.

"This case is not about tents. What we are arguing about is the ability to maintain sustained political protest."

Ms Gallastegui argued the ability to camp out was vital to that type of protest.

She said: "We want to protect the rights of the common people and their ability to speak out for the common good.

"This is about peaceful, legitimate protest and the ability to keep going.

"There is a danger of creeping legislation that will allow the authorities to control the square on their terms.

"There is also a danger that other local authorities around the country will take similar action and introduce similar bylaws."

But Westminster City Council leader Councillor Philippa Roe welcomed today's High Court decision.

She said: "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.

"Last week the High Court completely dismissed every single claim made by the protesters. They have no right to inhabit a public square designed for everyone to use. Westminster is not a campsite."

PA

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