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Legal crackdown on peaceful protest
Posted 1 April 2005
In the last days of parliamentary business before the election, the Labour government rushed through a new Bill whose purpose was to criminalise nearly all forms of effective protest against animal experimentation.
The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill received Royal Assent on Thursday 7th April 2005. The good news is that, following 'emergency briefings' sent to members of the House of Lords, the Bill was significantly amended so as to reduce the possibility that peaceful protest activity will be outlawed.
Animal Aid, along with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) and Liberty, had sent dossiers to peers expressing concern that the new laws had the potential to criminalise peaceful and law-abiding protest activity, such as consumer boycotts. The influential Joint Committee on Human Rights reflected these concerns after it had scrutinised the Bill to ensure that it was compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Committee was particularly concerned that consumer boycotts could potentially amount to an offence under the new measures, and it concluded that the law failed to satisfy the requirements of legal certainty and that it was, additionally, likely to amount to a disproportionate interference with the right to peaceful protest. The government's response was to amend the Bill, which now states that it will not be a criminal offence in itself to induce another person to break a lawful contract. This means that consumer boycott campaigns will not be affected.
Peaceful campaigns, such as the one we carried against the construction of a primate research laboratory at Cambridge University, should also be unaffected by the new statute.
The amendment is something of an achievement both for Animal Aid and the BUAV. It ought to ensure that groups who protest peacefully and within the law do not run the risk of criminal prosecution. However, the new measures still give cause for serious concern. They are very broadly drafted and could still criminalise ordinary forms of protest activity such as the handing out of leaflets and speaking on a megaphone. Although the government has stated that its intention is not to ban peaceful protest, this is not reflected in the legislation itself, which continues the steady erosion in recent years of our hard-won civil liberties. By Simon Dally, who has provided legal representation for animal rights protestors.
Courts used to curb campaigners
The government's new animal rights crackdown comes in the wake of a series of broadly drawn, highly restrictive court injunctions that are also aimed at curbing opposition to vivisection.
The legal instrument resorted to is the Protection from Harassment Act (PHA), which was intended by parliament to defend (usually) women who were being systematically hounded and threatened by deranged strangers or former partners.
The PHA allows for the courts to issue an interim injunction against an accused - ahead of a full trial - that limits the freedom of that individual in terms of how he or she may behave and where they can go.
Throughout 2003 and 2004, commercial and academic organisations involved in vivisection went to the courts seeking interim injunctions against protestors under the PHA. Against a background of heightened media hostility towards animal rights protesters, the courts proved to be extremely accommodating towards those seeking the inunctions. The result has been court orders directed at large numbers of peaceful protesters that seriously restrict their traditional freedoms to protest and freely assemble. As with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, the measures will have little, if any, impact on the minority of 'extremist' protesters intent on acting outside the law. In any case, there are already a raft of laws making it illegal to cause alarm, distress, issue threats, damage property or engage in physical assault.
Though animal rights protesters have been the first 'political' target of those misusing the PHA, in recent weeks an anti-war group has been on the receiving end of an injunction as a result of its protests against a Brighton-based arms manufacturer.
The ludicrously broad scope of the PHA injunctions currently being granted is starkly illustrated by the case of a student who was served with an injunction for interviewing animal rights protesters as part of his university project.
The Oxford English and Media Studies student spent an hour talking to campaigners at a protest against Oxford University's proposed - and currently stalled - animal research labs. The student is barred from loitering within 50 yards of the partially-built labs and cannot even take a photo of his girlfriend, since she is a 'protected person' under the terms of the court order
Animal Aid's legal analysis of the Government's amendments to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill is available online.