I am pleased to host this guest blogpost by Mira Hammad, a pupil barrister at Garden Court North Chambers. It is written in response to the guest blogpost by Rebecca Penfold and Aparna Rao, published last week.
In their blogpost Rebecca Penfold and Aparna Rao look at the amended Coronavirus Regulation 7 and whether it infringes the right to protest. Regulation 7 prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 6 people. The authors conclude (as have many lawyers commenting on this issue) that protests are unlawful under that provision. If this is so, it clearly interferes with our right to protest under the Human Rights Act.
The post goes on to consider whether this is a permissible limitation on the right to freedom of assembly and association. In the authors’ view “in order to argue otherwise, one would need to be able to show that, far from the limitation on gatherings being an unavoidable side-effect, the COVID-19 regulations are being used, or misused, as a means of silencing free expression.”
But that isn’t the test that the courts apply when it comes to the lawfulness of an interference with our human rights. In the defining protest case, DPP v Ziegler and Ors  EWHC 71 (Admin), the court set itself a much more exacting set of questions.
Where a defendant is legitimately acting in exercise of her right to protest and there is an interference by a public authority, even if that interference is prescribed by law, the court still needs to ask:
- Whether the interference is in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and
- Whether the interference is necessary in a democratic society to achieve that legitimate aim.
Clearly the answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second question is much more interesting. To answer it, the court would need to ask itself a series of sub-questions including:
- Is there a rational connection between the means chosen and the aim in view?
- Are there less restrictive alternative means available to achieve that aim?
- Is there a fair balance between the rights of the individual and the general interest of the community, including the rights of others?
These questions are fact specific – in other words they cannot be answered in the abstract in relation to everyprotest and every interference by the police.
For example, we can imagine a protest where all of the participants are 2 metres away from each other and wearing masks. The police then turn up, herd protestors into a smaller space and (not wearing masks) themselves get close to people to arrest them. Would there be a rational connection between the police doing that and preventing the spread of the virus? Is that the least restrictive way of preventing the spread of the virus while allowing people to protest? Where in that balance are the rights of the individuals?
We can see these are not cut and dry questions.
Nor is it a simple answer to point out, as the authors do, that protestors could express their views in other ways, on Twitter for example. As the Court of Appeal has emphasised (Hall v Mayor of London  EWCA Civ 817) the right to express views publicly (particularly on important issues) “extends to the manner in which the defendants wish to express their views and to the location where they wish to express and exchange their views.”
The authors also point out that there is a 28-day review on the infringement, and that the regulations are clearly being amended to relax the restrictions over time. This isn’t necessarily a definitive answer either.
The fact that we are now in a phase where restrictions have been relaxed to allow gatherings for the purposes of training elite athletes (7.2(c)) is likely to make it more difficult, not less, to show that a blanket ban on protests is necessary.
Protests are also time-sensitive, people around the world are protesting as a result of the despicable killing of George Floyd and they are protesting now. To say that protestors can wait for 28 days and see what the government has to say in its review simply doesn’t answer the question of whether the interference with their right to protest is lawful today.
Where does all of that leave us? In my view, nowhere very clear cut. The courts would have to make a decision with regard to each defendant. They would have to consider the questions above in the context of that particular protest and decide whether the interference prescribed under the Regulations is lawful under the Human Rights Act or not.
And if it is not, what does the court do then? Well, in the first instance, courts have to interpret legislation as far as possible so that it is compatible with human rights. The courts would have some options before them in this regard. Could an exception be read into the definition of ‘gathering’ or ‘activity’? Could some protests be deemed to fall into exception 7.2(f) where a gathering is lawful where it is reasonably necessary for the purposes of education (…and one could certainly argue that public education is needed on the issue of racism…)? If the courts feel that there is no possible way of interpreting the regulations so that they are compatible with human rights, then a declaration of incompatibility would have to follow.
Blanket provisions and clear-cut answers don’t usually sit well in the arena of human rights law, where the reigning principles are proportionality, balance and necessity. The extraordinary times in which we find ourselves don’t change that.