It’s difficult to know quite what is the more despicable aspect of the Appeal Court’s decision to overturn the High Court’s previous ruling in the case of protestor Brian Haw, the sheer sophistry of the the Government’s claim that Mr Haw’s presence outside Parliament constitutes a security risk, the facile argument put forward by the Metropolitan Police that:
The provisions in the 2005 act applying to demonstrations replaced parts of the Public Order Act 1986 for protests staged around parliament. If the 2005 act did not apply to demonstrations started before that act came into force those protests would not be covered for public order purposes at all.
Parliament intended to include demonstrations whenever they started. Any other conclusion would be wholly irrational and could fairly be described as manifestly absurd.
… or simply the sheer expense that the Government has gone to remove a single protestor from the precincts of Parliament Square.
I’ll ignore the Government’s contention that Mr Haw constitutes a ‘security risk’, treating it for what it really is – tendentious and beneath contempt, and skip lightly on to the Met’s argument in relation to the provisions of the 1986 Public Order Act that the Serious and Organised Crime and Policing Act (SOCAP) 2005 replaced.
Scanning the list of repeals and revocations in the Act – which are contained in Schedule 17, by the way, we find that SOCAP 2005 repeals the following sections of the Public Order Act:
Section 5(4) and (5).
Basically this amounts to two things – the removal of specfic provisions for arrest without warrant for affray, offences involving fear of the provocation of violence, offences involving harassment, alarm and distress and offence of using racially inflammatory words or behaviour or displaying racially inflammatory written material – which is everything referenced in sections 3 to 5 and section 18. These are all still criminal offences, in fact the only thing that these repeals do is pave the way for the consolidation of the powers of arrest conferred in these sections into the general power of arrest set out in section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, as amended by section 110 of SOCAP 2005.
None of this is relevant to Mr Haw’s situation – if he commits any of the relevant offences then he can be arrested like anyone else.
This leaves the repeals applied to section 12(7), 13(10) and 14(7), 14B(4) and 14C(4), all of which relate to the regulation of public processions and public assemblies and which confer on a senior police officer the power to impose conditions on or prohibit processions and control public assemblies in order to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community or where it is believed that the purpose of those organising the procession/assembly is to intimidate others.
If memory serves me correctly, except in the case of the designated area around Parliament, which is what is at issue here, these powers have since transferred from the Police to Local Authorities as part of the licensing function.
Ignoring the bit about ‘serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community’ – on the rare occasions that Mr Haw’s protest has been associated with any public disorder, it has been Mr Haw who has been the victim of unprovoked assaults – the Met’s contention that the previous ruling of tthe High Court leaves them without any cover for public order purposes in entirely false on three counts.
First, only Mr Haw is – under the High Court ruling – exempt from the provisions of SOCAP 2005. Anyone wishing to join in with his protest must still notify the Met as required by the Act.
Second, of the two acts that were previously covered under the Public Order Act, public processions and public assemblies, only the former would have been applicable to Mr Haw. The Public Order Act defined a public assembly as a gathering of two or more people and there is only one Mr Haw, so as long as her refrains from processing around Parliament Square, then neither of these provisions of the Public Order Act apply to him.
Finally, irrespective of the applicability of SOCAP 2005, the Police still retain their common law powers to control assemblies in the interests of preventing a breach of the peace and preserving public safety are empowered to take all reasonable steps to prevent a breach of the peace and to protect the safety of the public where they reasonably suspect that it is necessary to do so.
In short, the Met’s argument is near enough a total fabrication and a mischaracterisation of the actual legal position as it applies both the Mr Haw and to protests and assemblies in Parliament Square.
Moving on to Sir Anthony Clarke’s comments, I believe simply that he has got it wrong and hope fervantly that when this matter comes before the Law Lords, that they will take a similar view. In matters such as the retrospective application of law, it is not, I would contend, the place of a judge to overrule the position set out in statute law on the basis that this is not what the Government of the day intended – if a law is to applied retrospectively then it is for Parliament to make that determination and include provisions in legislation to that effect. If it fails to do so, then tough, it should go back and put through an amendment to that effect, not ask the court’s to bend the law in their favour and effectively cover-up their own mistakes. When laws are framed in such way as to leave certain matters open to judicial interpretation then Judges must interpret as they think appropriate in line with the principles of common law and their understanding of the intent of the legislature, but if written clearly they should not – even if the Government pops up in front of them claiming that its all be a dreadful error and its really not what they intended in the first place.
If judges start changing the law to reflect the ‘intent’ of the government where that intent is not only expressed in law but explicit in its absence then where does this kind of thing stop?
Can the government now apply to the courts to extend the police’s powers of detention from 28 to 90 days, because that’s what they intended even though its not what Parliament agreed to? Can the government simply ignore the provisions in the Identity Cards Act delaying the issuing of ID cards alongside passports until 2010 and them simply ask the courts to rule in their favour because that’s what they intended all along.
Ok, I’ve picked on two very extreme and highly improbable examples above, but the basic principle remains the same – if legislation is clear in its intent as written that that is how is should be interpreted by the courts, whether or not what the law says is actually what the government wanted. It’s up to the Government to draft laws properly, in concert with the legislature, and if fails to do that then not only should it not expect to be bailed out by the courts but one has to seriously question the competence of those who drew up this law in the first place.
Not only has Sir Anthony Clarke arrived at the wrong decision in this case, he’s done so for entirely the wrong reasons.
On the last point, the cost of this whole sorry exercise, can anyone possible justify the time and expense that the Government has gone to, in pursuing this case, in order to get rid of one harmless and somewhat eccentric protestor? If ever there was a matter that demanded the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee it is this one, so perhaps one of the Honourable Members might care to submit a written question enquiring as to just exactly how much public money has been pissed away by the government on this case – presumably the government’s record keeping when it comes to legal fees is rather better than its record keeping when it comes to foreign criminals and deportations, so it shouldn’t take too long to get an answer.