Extinction Rebellion members left the Royal Courts of Justice grinning this morning, after two High Court judges ruled in their favour in a landmark case against the Metropolitan Police.
In October, during the second week of a wave of XR activism that attempted to shut down the capital and draw attention to the impending climate catastrophe, the Met implemented a ban on the group protesting anywhere in the city, to the dismay of civil liberties groups.
The blanket ban was implemented under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, starting at 9PM on Monday the 14th of October and lasting until 6PM on Friday the 18th of October, during which time – according to the Met – over 400 XR activists were arrested.
This legal case rested on whether or not the police had used their powers to ban a "public assembly" within the confines of the law. In essence, the police had attempted to label the entire city as one single place, in the process restricting existing – and potentially future – sites of protest, an interpretation the court rejected.
"Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly within the meaning of … the Act," explained Mr Justice Dingemans when delivering his judgment, the full text of which is available online. XR successfully argued that a "public assembly" can not be a series of separate gatherings spread across a city, even if coordinated by one group.
In its judgment, the Court also agreed with XR's lawyers that the law does not give the police power to itself prohibit gatherings. Instead, they can merely impose conditions on events which have already started. This means the police will in future be unable to impose blanket bans on protests under this law, a ruling Liberty say will "help safeguard future protests from police overreach".
The judges did however note that the Act contains powers which may be legally used to "control future protests which are deliberately designed to 'take police resources to breaking point'".
"Peaceful protest is an essential guarantor of a free and democratic society," said Labour MP Clive Lewis, one of those who brought the case forward, "so I welcome today's judgment. Extinction Rebellion is sounding the alarm about the climate and ecological emergency. Rather than trying to block our ears by shutting down their protests, we should be reacting to the danger they're alerting us to."
The case – which was brought on behalf of Extinction Rebellion by Clive Lewis, Baroness Jenny Jones, Caroline Lucas MP, David Drew MP, Ellie Chowns MEP, Adam Allnut and journalist George Monbiot – has seen the order overturned, and could go on to undermine the criminal prosecutions of the hundreds of people who were arrested for breaching these illegally-imposed conditions.
Before the hearing, on the other side of The Strand, a handful of XR activists held a meeting. Two press releases were prepared: one for a successful verdict, another for a loss. Luckily for them, it was the former they got to go with.
"Extinction Rebellion is delighted with the Court's decision," said Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer in Extinction Rebellion's Legal Strategy team. "It vindicates our belief that the police's blanket ban on our protests was an unprecedented and unlawful infringement on the right to protest."
The group say they will now return to making progress on their three key demands: that the government must "tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency" and "must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025". XR also want to see the creation of a citizens' assembly to lead on climate and ecological justice.