Police Tried to Jail a Trade Union Leader for Using a Megaphone

In an absurd case that collapsed last week, they said that the loud sound-waves hurt their ears and amounted to "battery".
Simon Childs
London, GB
James Farrar UPHD
James Farrar, chair of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain's United Private Hire Drivers branch, on a protest against the introduction of congestion charging for mini-cab drivers. Photo by Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

If you batter a police officer, you can expect trouble. In fact, the last government passed a law specifically to make battering a police officer, ambulance worker or firefighter a worse offence than battering anyone else. Setting out the principle of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, then Justice Minister David Gauke said that an attack on emergency workers “is an attack on us and on the state, and it should be punished more severely than an attack simply on an individual victim".

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It was under this Act that James Farrar stood trial at Southwark Crown Court last week. Farrar is the branch secretary of the United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) – a trade union branch that organises minicab drivers, mainly from Uber. Last year UPHD protested London mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to impose a congestion charge that costs minicab drivers about £4,000 a year while black cabs remain exempt.

Since most Uber drivers are BAME and most black cab drivers are white, UPHD said that this was discriminatory and organised a number of noisy demonstrations. It was at one of these demonstrations in March 2019 that Farrar was alleged to have assaulted two constables. He faced a possible 12 months in prison – all for using a megaphone.

Farrar, 51, sat in the dock in a blue suit, peering through his glasses with a security guard behind him at all times. The police wore their smart dark blue uniforms with stripes denoting their rank on their upper arms. The jury had to swear a religious oath or make a secular affirmation to “faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence”. The judge made one juror take the oath again for putting their left hand on the Bible, rather than the right. It was all very serious.

That is, until the prosecution started laying out its case. As the prosecuting lawyer began his argument for why a trade union leader should be banged up for a year, he noted that no one had actually been beaten during the course of the day. In this case of battery, no punches, kicks, or anything else were thrown at all. Instead, what was alleged was that by shouting into his megaphone, Farrar had caused injury – albeit “slight” and “transient” – to the delicate ears of two brave officers of the law.

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The prosecution tried – and failed – to show that Farrar had used the loudhailer with reckless abandon, and had shouted into it right next to a police officers’ ear, despite having been told not to. Had this happened, it was argued, it would have amounted to battery.

The defence solicitor, Raj Chada of Hodge Jones & Allen, had the slightly simpler task of arguing that to batter someone you have to actually touch them, and that sound waves do not constitute physical contact.

Over two ridiculous days, the jury had to waste their time watching footage from the mounted cameras worn by police officers and from mobile phones used by demonstrators. What it clearly showed was a noisy but peaceful protest, with trade unionists banging drums, blowing whistles, using vuvuzelas and letting off air horns. And there was their leader, James Farrar, making a speech through his megaphone as he had on many protests before, as the police moved around him to try and control the crowd.

Sound waves are physical contact. Coffee is a soup. Black is in fact white, your Honour. On it went, the events being played from many different angles, all of them showing a trade unionist engaging in the normal protest behaviour of shouting into a megaphone. It didn’t look any more like battery no matter how many times the footage was played.

On the third day, the judge threw the case out because of lack of evidence – there was no case to answer. Judge Philip Bartle QC said it was “very unfortunate indeed that this case arose”. And while those words ensured that James Farrar will not go to prison for something that never happened, they also underline how far beyond the law the police were acting. When the police are taking trade unionists to court on plainly absurd charges, we should all be concerned. They either don’t know the law, or were using it to hassle a legitimate trade union.

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In fact, Farrar suspects that the charges were only pursued because he had made a complaint about the policing of the demonstration. He was charged in July, 48 hours after he escalated his complaint following months of police inactivity. Speaking to VICE UK after the case was thrown out, Farrar told me: “ It lay fallow for four and a half months and then – voila – just after I escalate the complaint I’m charged. It’s ridiculous.”

Farrar also pointed out the “crippling” legal costs that left the union struggling to crowdfund. UPHD is a branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), a small but effective union that organises precarious migrant workers often forgotten by Britain’s larger unions. It does not have huge reserves of cash, but the case will cost them £20,000 even if an application for some costs is met. “Our member rate is £8 a month so we’ll have to have a lot of members for a lot of months to collect that kind of money,” said Farrar.


It’s tempting to view this case as some bizarre case from a far-away dictatorship, like Saudi Arabia or Russia. But the fact is that is where we are now. This is Britain in 2020. Environmental and left-wing protest groups are seen by the police as “extremists” along with neo-Nazis, and trade unionists get threatened with prison for using megaphones.

While the government bends to the police’s whims, and protest becomes a necessity in the face of social and ecological disaster, this country needs an urgent conversation about our rights, and the historic role of the police in stifling dissent.

As of last week, police forces can bid for more potentially deadly tasers with which to equip their offers. Announcing the move, Home Secretary Priti Patel cited the “rise in assaults on officers” (a dubious tabloid invention) that makes tasers “an important tactical option when facing potentially physically violent situations”.

With the police apparently willing to interpret loud noises as violence, the next trade unionist with the temerity to raise their voice in public could find themselves a electrocuted mess twitching on the floor, before the police even have to bother to initiate a vexatious trial.

@SimonChilds13