Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: The government continues to restrict our right to protest and our right to justice
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Environment protest_Pexels_Markus Spiske
The right to protest features heavily in this issue – not surprisingly, as the Public Order Bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords. As Jun Pang, a policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, writes, the bill features measures that were previously thrown out of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Opposition to these greater restrictions on protest has come from MPs and peers across parliament, as well as from wider civil society.
However, this government is not one to easily give up on restricting our rights, especially our human rights. I asked Adam Wagner whether he thought Dominic Raab’s Bill of Rights Bill, which has not as yet been debated in parliament, would progress further. He said it was less likely now, with other proposed legislation on strikes and small boats. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) report on the bill (just published as I write) concludes: ‘The government should not progress the bill in its current form through parliament.’1Legislative scrutiny: Bill of Rights Bill. Ninth report of session 2022–23, HC 611/HL Paper 132, 25 January 2023, para 339, page 109. The JCHR chair, Joanna Cherry KC, said:
Human rights are universal. A Bill of Rights should reaffirm and reinforce the fundamental rights that protect everyone in the UK, but this bill does nothing of the sort. Instead, it removes and restricts certain human rights protections that the government finds inconvenient and prescribes a restrictive approach to the interpretation and application of the European Convention on Human Rights in the courts of our domestic legal systems.2Committee urges government not to proceed with the Bill of Rights Bill’, JCHR news article, 25 January 2023.
Jun Pang’s analysis, in which she describes the Public Order Bill as ‘a staggering attack on the right to protest’, is well worth a read. The bill introduces new serious disruption prevention orders, expands stop and search powers, and criminalises direct action. The new offences – locking on and being equipped to lock on, being present in a tunnel, causing serious disruption by tunnelling, obstructing major transport works, etc – are clearly targeted at environmental protection groups. This is the state using extreme methods to clamp down on organised protest that has previously been enormously successful in using non-violent confrontational tactics.
If you want to get angry about the evisceration of our right to protest, I recommend picking up Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest by Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone (see my review). Reading the book, for me, was like watching fast-motion footage from a David Attenborough documentary on the melting ice caps and asking yourself: ‘How did we let that happen?’
Turning now to the open letter Housing Law Practitioners’ Association co-chair Simon Mullings has written to Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities. It sets out forcefully and eloquently the multiple ways government and non-government institutions have put forward and continue to develop threats to access to justice for our clients, the most recent being proposals to exclude the majority of people of modest means and with claims of modest value from the courts (with claims under £10,000 no longer requiring a hearing). ‘Alternative dispute resolution’ is now to be just ‘dispute resolution’, as the intention is for it to be mainstream rather than alternative. The problem is that not all civil claims are the same: running a disrepair claim in which the problems are causing serious health issues to the tenants is not the same as suing for compensation in a road traffic accident. Referring these cases to the Housing Ombudsman Service is not appropriate or sufficient; instead, tenants need urgent action, legal advice and legal aid.
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It’s hard to reflect on the thousands of people who have been unable to access their rights since its implementation.
As a front-line housing solicitor for most of those 10 years, I witnessed the effect on tenants – pushing them into crisis. The government is to conduct a review of the civil legal aid market. While we wait for the detail of what this will involve, the press release announcing the review doesn’t make me hopeful for change, when one of its purposes is stated as ‘[making] the system more efficient’. That won't be sufficient, we need a total rethink on legal aid. We need to develop a coherent and comprehensive legal aid system, one that puts the client at the centre of its provision.
1     Legislative scrutiny: Bill of Rights Bill. Ninth report of session 2022–23, HC 611/HL Paper 132, 25 January 2023, para 339, page 109. »
2     Committee urges government not to proceed with the Bill of Rights Bill’, JCHR news article, 25 January 2023. »