Extinction Rebellion has won a legal challenge against the police over a London-wide ban on its protests, raising the prospect of mass legal action by arrested demonstrators.
After detaining hundreds of activists over the environmental action group’s October “uprising”, the Metropolitan Police imposed conditions making the assembly of two or more people illegal.
High Court judges ruled the ban unlawful on Wednesday, finding that police had “no power to impose it” under the law.
Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Chamberlain found that Extinction Rebellion protests “separated both in time and by many miles” did not constitute an assembly under the Public Order Act.
“Therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful,” their ruling said. “Superintendent Duncan McMillan’s decision to impose the condition on 14 October will be quashed.”
But the judges said there were powers that “might be lawfully used to control future protests deliberately designed to ‘take police resources to breaking point’” – a stated aim of Extinction Rebellion.
The group’s lawyers had argued that police overstepped the law by banning “multiple assemblies, both ongoing and intended”.
At a hearing last month, Phillippa Kaufmann QC told the court the move was “wholly uncertain, an abuse of power and irrational”.
The Metropolitan Police argued the ban was lawful as a means of tackling disruption that would be caused by Extinction Rebellion’s plans to shut down key sites in central London.
It came after police were caught out by the group’s fast-moving protests in April, which saw Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus blocked.
Those bringing the legal action included Green Party politicians Baroness Jenny Jones and Caroline Lucas, Labour MP Clive Lewis and campaigner George Monbiot, who was arrested after the ban was enforced.
Hailing the “brilliant” ruling, Ms Lucas said: “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right in a democracy and must not be arbitrarily shut down.”
Mr Monbiot said he would be “considering his options” for further legal action over his arrest, which was one of more than 400 during the ban.
Extinction Rebellion said it was considering a mass legal action against the Metropolitan Police for “wrongful imprisonment”.
“Rather than wasting its time and money seeking to silence and criminalise those who are drawing its attention to the climate and ecological emergency, we call on the government to act now on the biggest threat to our planet,” a spokesperson added.
The Liberty human rights group called the ruling a “victory for protest rights in the UK”, while Amnesty International said there must be “no repeats of this attempt to suppress legitimate non-violent protest”.
Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general, said that if it wins the next general election, the party would “act both to protect peaceful dissent and the planet”.
In 10 days of planned protests that started on 7 October, activists targeted sites including government departments, the Bank of England and London City Airport.
Police initially used Section 14 of the Public Order Act to restrict demonstrations to Trafalgar Square, but following “continued breaches” of the order officers moved in to clear the area and changed the terms of the order.
It ordered “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion autumn uprising” to cease protests anywhere in London by 9pm on 14 October.
The ban was lifted on 18 October and was due to expire the following day.
Jules Carey, a solicitor from Bindmans who represented Extinction Rebellion, called the ban “hastily imposed and erratically applied”.
“This judgment is a timely reminder to those in authority facing a climate of dissent – the right to protest is a long-standing fundamental right in a democratic society that should be guarded and not prohibited by overzealous policing,” he added.
More than 1,800 people were arrested during the protests, and 165 have so far been prosecuted.
Some police leaders, including Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick, have called for protest laws to be strengthened and have made representations to the Home Office.
Scotland Yard said the costs of policing the “autumn uprising” were in excess of £24m, and resulted in officers having leave days cancelled and shifts lengthened as police were pulled in from other British forces.
The Metropolitan Police said it was “disappointed” by the judgment but would consider it carefully before deciding its next steps.
Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said the ban was imposed because “we firmly believed that the continuation of the situation was untenable” after a week of “unacceptable and prolonged disruption”.
He said the order was “reasonable and proportionate”, adding: ”I want to be clear; we would not and cannot ban protest. The condition at the centre of this ruling was specific to this particular protest, in the particular circumstances at the time.
“There is no criticism from me of the decision to impose the condition, which was made with good intent and based upon the circumstances confronting the command team at the time.
“It did in fact result in the reduction of the disruption. Nevertheless, this case highlights that policing demonstrations like these, within the existing legal framework, can be challenging.”
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