Report of a Zoom meeting
This is a report of a Zoom meeting on 28 April 2021, organised by Young Legal Aid Lawyers on the subject of protecting our human rights. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) is a group of lawyers who are committed to practising in those areas of law, both criminal and civil, that have traditionally been publicly funded. YLAL members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers based throughout England and Wales. We believe that the provision of good quality publicly funded legal help is essential to protecting the interests of the vulnerable in society and upholding the rule of law.
We are grateful to group member Mike for preparing this post.
The panel of speakers were:
Ciara Bartlem, Barrister (Chair); Michael Mansfield QC (HR Specialist); Audrey Mogan, Barrister; Katy Watts, Solicitor, Liberty; Chai Patel, Policy Director, JCWI; Shami Chakrabarti, Barrister, House of Lords.
Two questions posed were: a) is government becoming increasingly authoritarian, and b) what can be done to curb the progression towards authoritarianism?
The panel all agreed that government is becoming more authoritarian. Michael Mansfield QC said that activist lawyers are now Home Office targets with the Home Secretary tending toward aggressive oppression. He referred to May’s total dislike of the ECHR as well as other examples.
The main concerns are the three Acts that we have already identified: CHIS, Police Crime Bill and Overseas Trade. The UK HR Act is not under immediate threat though it is under review but the panel agreed that the three acts do undermine our HR and the trajectory is increasing.
While the Police Crime Bill does not directly make protesting illegal, it provides the police with huge powers to determine when a protest is causing a ‘disturbance of the peace of others’; it gives ‘guilty’ protestors a criminal record and excessive sentencing powers to the courts. ‘Disturbing the peace of others’ is not specified and could be about noise, inconveniencing shoppers to holding up traffic.
Shami Chakrabarti was particularly scathing about CHIS and how it can be used in conjunction with the Police Bill. She warned of agent provocateurs being used to create/encourage violent protests thereby giving the police powers to act, and the courts powers to sentence ‘undesirable’ protestors.
They all agreed that these, and the general trend, is a back door threat to our freedoms and towards an increasingly authoritarian government.
There was also a lengthy discussion about the ending, or curtailing, of Judicial Reviews. Judicial Review is the ability for courts (lawyers) to challenge the legality of a government action (or a government agency such as the police). Either in the three Acts or elsewhere the government wants to end (restrict) the process of Judicial Review, thereby rendering government unaccountable to the law. There has been an continuing debate as to whether judges, enabled in part by the Human Rights Act, have expanded their reach into what some consider to be inherently political areas of decision making. Judicial Review is subject to a review at present.
Sadly, what can be done was far more directed towards lawyers and actions in the court than activists. They talked about the increasing importance of using Legal Observers at protests.
Though an interesting and simple suggestion was: get ready to use your mobile phone, learn how to video quickly. The George Floyd case in America was blown open by video. We are unlikely to see a lot of such incidents in Salisbury, but the inference is to stop abuse in the streets before it gets to the courts.
The panel also recommended two videos:
The Brink: [trailer] Steven Bannon in the US and his involvement in UK, particularly, Brexit politics.
The 13th: [trailer] after the emancipation of slaves the 13th amendment was used to criminalise black people.
The Salisbury group is concerned – along with many others – about the government’s stated desire to abolish the Human Rights Act. Curtailment of liberties, including the right to protest and Judicial Review, is part a drip, drip of actions the government is engaged in.