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A protester and a businessman who were detained for more than seven hours without food, water or access to toilets at the Mayday protests in 2001 have lost their claim for damages against the Metropolitan Police. They intend to appeal against the judgement.
On 23 March 2005 Mr Justice Tugendhat deemed that the police tactic of surrounding and holding 3,000 protesters in Oxford Circus was reasonable in order to prevent violence and damage to property. Protesters now fear that the judgement will encourage the police to use the method in future, specifically at the G8 Summit in Scotland this July.
The case was brought by Lois Austin and Geoffrey Saxby. Protester Lois Austin, 35, was prevented from leaving Oxford Circus to collect her child from a crèche despite telling police that her daughter was lactase deficient and needed to be breastfed. Geoffrey Saxby, 48, happened to get caught up in the demonstration while collecting money on behalf of his employer. The pair claimed that the police’s actions were unlawful and breached their human rights. One hundred and fifty other claims for damages depended on this test case.
Austin said: ‘This is a disappointing judgement for people who protest. It criminalises protesters when the real criminals are the people who prosecute illegal wars, ensure that millions of people are condemned to poverty, and promote environmental destruction. We’re very worried that this will enable the police to further impede protest, and it comes at a time when the state is increasing its powers and attacking civil liberties.’
The pair’s solicitor, Louise Christian, believes that the judge was wrong in law to say that everyone in the area of Oxford Circus could be reasonably suspected of violence because of a small violent minority. She pointed out that the judge had conceded that the protesters were effectively imprisoned, but had decided that this was justified on the particular facts of the case.
‘The police are looking at this as a test case on whether they can detain people in other circumstances,’ Christian said. ‘Hopefully the court of appeal will take a different approach, otherwise the problem will be that the police will see this as a green light to use this tactic again.’
The Metropolitan Police issued a statement saying that they ‘were duty bound to protect public safety through implementing this containment in Oxford Circus. For us not to take this action would have run a very real risk of serious injury to the public and our staff, looting and widespread criminal damage’.
In his ruling the judge said: ‘It is obvious from the videos of the three previous English demonstrations that on May Day 2001 there was a real risk of serious injury and even death, as well as damage to property, if the police did not control the crowd’. He agreed with the police that protesters’ literature, which used phrases like ‘sale of the century’ and ‘smash and grab’, ‘could reasonably be understood as incitement to looting and violence, and it was hard to understand it in any other way’.
The judgement will have serious implications for the policing of future demonstrations, providing a precedent for the police to cite. Before the case was brought, the police had no clear legal authority to detain protesters in such a fashion.