HRA Year 6: Protecting the right to protest On 2 October 2000, the Human Rights Act was brought into force, significantly strengthening the protection of human rights across the United Kingdom and providing a means by which human rights can be enforced. This October, the British Institute of Human Rights has organised “15 Days of Action”, including a tour with events across the UK to celebrate this important anniversary our Human Rights Act and the difference it has made people’s lives across the UK. Each day we will be looking at one story from each of the years the Human Rights Act has been in force. Today, we look at 2006 and the case of R (Laporte) v Chief Constable of Gloucestershire (Laporte). The case concerned two of our most basic human rights, the rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly, and required the House of Lords to examine fundamental questions about the relationship between private individuals to protest against government policy and the powers of the police to curtail that right. One of the key changes that the Human Rights Act has made is to ensure that those who exercise power over us – like the police – do so in a way which is compatible with our human rights. History is rife with examples of the state and its agents exercising unlimited and unchecked power over the people. Such examples are rarely ones we would like to see repeated today. Even in the United Kingdom, with our history of a model of “policing by consent”, it was extremely difficult, before the Human Rights Act came into force, to challenge the actions (or inactions) of the police. The Human Rights Act now places limits on the exercise of that power to ensure that it is exercised appropriately and proportionately. Jane Laporte was a peace protester who, in early 2003, wanted to protest peacefully against the impending war in Iraq. Alongside many other protesters and organisations opposed to war in Iraq, she travelled by coach from London to Fairford in Gloucestershire to protest at a Royal Air Force base nearby the village. The police stopped and searched the coaches and, in addition to noting that there were hardline activists on board, found spray paint, face masks, overalls and scissors. Fearing that some of the passengers may cause trouble upon arrival, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire ordered that the coaches not be allowed go to Fairford, prevented the passengers from departing the coach, and forced their return to London under police escort. The House of Lords held that the action of police were unlawful and constituted violations of Jane Laporte’s rights to freedom of expression and to assembly. Whilst it is permissible to restrict a person’s rights to freedom of expression and assembly, the restrictions must be proportionate i.e. no more than is necessary in the circumstances to ensure public safety or to prevent crime. The police’s response to the potential disorder, however, had been disproportionate: instead of targeting the specific individuals known to pose a threat and dealing with them appropriately, the police had simply prevented everyone from protesting, even though most – like Jane Laporte – would have done so entirely peacefully. Jane Laporte won her case. Cases such as these show how the Human Rights Act has helped us keep those in power to account. Whether it is the government, police, healthcare professionals, or anyone else who has power or control over others, the Human Rights Act provides us all with protection from disproportionate or excessive use of that power. Those with power may well be acting with the best intentions: in the case of Laporte, the Chief Constable acted with the intention of preventing crime and to ensure public order and safety. But good intentions do not always lead to good decisions, and here the over the top response to a potential problem resulted in unjustifiable restrictions of basic rights. It is said that it is the first duty of any government to protect the people of the country it governs. To protect us, there must be those who have power over everyone else: to prevent crime and disorder and to keep us safe. But with power must come checks and accountability. It is the Human Rights Act that plays a vital role in keeping check on the exercise of power and on keeping those with power accountable for its use.