Boris Johnson’s decision to close Parliament Square to Occupy Democracy to be challenged in High Court tomorrow

  • All previous 17 cases relating to Occupy Democracy protests acquitted or dismissed
  • Policing operation costs exceeded £2 million
  • Case is a litmus test of our democratic freedoms
  • Mayor of London argues the rights of grass should take precedence over human rights
  • Hearing coincides with trial of the Occupy Gandhi 3, for their peaceful protest in Parliament Square

George Barda, one of the organisers of Occupy Democracy, [1] is to argue that the Mayor of London broke the law in a Judicial Review hearing due to be heard at the High Court on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th November. The Mayor is called on to justify his use of metal fences to exclude protest from Parliament Square in the months leading to the general election. 

The Greater London Authority (GLA) argue that their initial closure of the square was “to provide protection for the grassed area” [2] implying that the rights of the grass should take precedence over our fundamental rights. Barda, who instructed human rights lawyers Liberty, will argue that the erection of large mental fences has more to do with the exclusion of protest, alleging that the Mayor in closing the square acted beyond his legal powers and failed to have regard to his legal duty to facilitate protest.

The Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson has previously acknowledged: “The importance of the freedom to protest in Parliament Square is not in doubt” [3].

Occupy London’s legal advisor, Matthew Varnham, said;

“When people around the world have a problem with their government they take their grievance directly to the seat of power. Parliament Square is of equivalent significance in the United Kingdom as Tahrir Square is to Egypt or Tianenmen Square is to China. It is a test of the democracy of the country itself how the authorities choose to respond to protests in these spaces.”

“Not only were the Occupy Democracy movement denied access to Parliament Square, they were met with a heavy-handed policing operation involving up to 500 police per day [4] and numerous arrests – and yet all cases have resulted in acquittals, dismissals or a finding that there is no case to answer. The policing operation was found to have cost the public over £2 million.” [5].

“It would appear that the authorities wanted to suppress the Occupy Democracy movement in order to avoid a discussion of the country’s democratic deficit [6] in the run up to the general election in May 2015.” [7]

George Barda said:

“It is disappointing yet unsurprising that the law of the land seems to provide no means of judicial review that is able to address the kind of blatant, chilling and systematic phenomenon of political policing of the kind the Occupy Democracy movement was faced with, starting with the cynical prohibiting of public access to the square the day before our protest for supposedly unconnected reasons. I am however very pleased that we have the opportunity to challenge some of the most blatant aspects of it, such as the decision to erect metal fences for months around the entirety of parliament square, supposedly in the name of maintaining access to Parliament Square! As so often George Orwell would no doubt be spinning in his grave.”

“We’re faced with the combination of an increasingly cynical, corrupt, anti-democratic and outright mendacious government, and global challenges on an unprecedented scale. The importance of principled protest movements that help restore sanity to our national conversation has therefore never been greater. Consequently the role of the courts in protecting such movements is vital to our increasingly undermined democracy.”

Ends

Notes:

[1] Occupy Democracy is a social movement for democracy free from corporate influence that works for people and planet. Occupy Democracy formed in March 2014 as a working group of Occupy London. Working by consensus decision-making, we have a safer spaces policy and are dedicated to non-violence. 

Occupy Democracy’s six core demands are as follows:

  • reform of party funding so that members of parliament act in the interests of those who elect them rather than the 1% who bankroll them
  • major democratic reform of the media to break the stranglehold of vested interests
  • a fundamental overhaul of lobbying and the way powerful economic interests inhabit the corridors of power within government
  • the introduction of proportional representation so that everyone’s vote counts
  • that MPs should not have conflicts of interests from either paid employment or corporate shareholdings
  • a citizen-led constitutional convention for real democracy https://occupydemocracy.org.uk/demands/

[2] Skeleton Argument of the Mayor of London at paragraph 4.

[3] Judgement of Lord Dyson MR in R (Gallastegui) v Westminster City Council [2013] 1 WLR 2377.

[4] From a response by Metropolitan Police to a Freedom of Information request by Donnachadh McCarthy (Reference No: 2014110000865) concerning the initial ten day occupation in October 2014:

“The numbers of police officers involved in policing the Occupy Democracy Protest for the period 17/10/2014 to 27/10/2014 broken down into daily totals. 

17 October 2014 – 141 

18 October 2014 – 73 

19 October 2014 – 142 

20 October 2014 – 46 

21 October 2014 – 92 

22 October 2014 – 180 

23 October 2014 – 509 

24 October 2014  – 233 

25 October 2014  – 236 

26  October 2014- 233 

27 October 2014 – 235″

[5] From a written response by the Mayor of London to a question by Jenny Jones: “Question No: 2015/0830. The total estimated cost to the MPS of policing the Parliament Square Demonstrations from mid-October to mid-February is £1,945,279 of which £1,588,316 are opportunity costs. The additional cost relates to overtime, £327,567 and equipment, transport and catering costs, £29,395.” Please note this figure does not cover the period from March-May when Occupy Democracy continued to be active around Parliament Square, nor the cost of pursuing unsuccessful prosecutions through the courts.

[6] “Unelected Oligarchy” by David Beetham for Democratic Audit, for example, lays out the ways that corporations have increased their control over government over the last couple of decades. In terms of the democratic deficit due to the First Past The Post voting system see: “Why this year’s general election was the most unfair in Britain’s history and “Sixty per cent of people want voting reform, says survey.” 

[7] The occupation outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 and 2012 had previously succeeded in bringing issues of inequality and democracy to the national conversation after the financial crash of 2008.

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