The law favors Just Stop Oil revolutionaries over the public, and it becomes intolerable

Section 137 of the Motorways Act 1980 states that it is an offense “if any person, without lawful permission or excuse, deliberately obstructs in any way the free passage along a highway”. Why then are so many protesters blocking the highway and going unpunished?

There may be few people, especially in London, or trying to get around the M25, who are not asking themselves this question at the moment. The protesters, the latest being Just Stop Oil, make this obstruction their specialty.

The police are shy in enforcing the law. In mid-October, two activists hung over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, closing the Dartford Crossing, possibly the busiest pinch point on the country’s busiest motorway. It took Essex Police two days to remove and arrest them. In September, another blockage at junction three of the M25 left 18,000 drivers stuck for hours, some stranded for hospital treatment or school errands.

Similar questions arise about criminal damages. Protesters took to sticking themselves over works of art in public collections and spraying paint on public buildings. Over the past month, 8,000 frontline police teams have been diverted from their normal duties to deal with such protests, but ‘coping’ is the wrong term. The police are there in force, but force is not what they use. Most of the time they stay upright.

As someone who lives in the countryside but comes to London quite often, I see frequent and less dramatic examples in both places. Local trail hunts are often disrupted by intimidating gangs of animal rights extremists who commit various offenses such as filming children and mass trespassing. Very often the police come and hang around, but never – and I have witnessed such scenes over 100 times – have I seen a police arrest. On one occasion (which I was not present) there were arrests, after the “antis” fractured a man’s skull. The case was dropped because the attackers, being masked, were not identifiable.

Similar police inaction is commonplace when travelers illegally occupy and often defile private or public lands. The most famous current example of police reluctance, of course, is that of the immigrants landing by the thousands on the south coast. Again, the police simply arrive to witness the mass illegality, not to prevent it.

In London, my work takes me to Westminster. Not a day goes by without protests that disturb pedestrians, residents or office workers. These range from delay in walking down the street, to the sound of the megaphone making work difficult, to break-ins, complete blocking of streets and scuffles with exasperated members of the public.

Opposite Downing Street, a permanent camp is permitted, and crowds at the security gates are often allowed to shout so loudly that they interfere with normal life (and, indeed, with Prime Ministers who choose to announce there their resignation – nowadays an almost weekly occurrence).

I find it heartbreaking: I’m just old enough to remember when pedestrians could cross Downing Street unmolested. It was considered a proud aspect of our parliamentary democracy that the Prime Minister lived on a single street and that we could walk it. This freedom has long since succumbed to threats from terrorists and mobs.

I’ve never seen a proper global analysis of these issues before, so this week’s short report (The ‘Just Stop Oil’ protests) by the Policy Exchange think tank is timely. It brings all the elements together.

The first explains who the protesters are. The organizations involved have different names – Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, Animal Rebellion, Just Stop Oil – but the same people. They are extreme, calling for revolution, and apocalyptic, declaring “this civilization is over” and flirting with the idea of ​​suicide as an answer to “climatic grief”.

Policy Exchange reveals that some protesters had to sign a declaration in which they “formally undertake to participate in an action which will lead to my arrest”, for which they will follow “a day of training in non-violence”. “Non-violence” seems to be defined narrowly: things like breaking bottles in supermarkets, smashing windows in public buildings, or spraying paint on buildings are “peaceful.” These are not normal concerned citizens: they are fanatics, led by seasoned agitators, like the ubiquitous Roger Hallam, who want them to break the law and then exploit all its ambiguities in court.

The reason traffic law is not enforced lies in the interpretation of other laws. Since Britain came under the Human Rights Act 2000, our indigenous right has been contradicted by what is mistakenly called ‘the right to protest’, which is found in the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a 2021 case known as Ziegler, our Supreme Court ruled that this right sometimes provides a “lawful excuse” to block a freeway and that juries should assess whether a blocking conviction was “necessary in a democratic society.” . It imports politics into law and makes every case defensible, much like the ridiculous defense of protesters for their “sincerity.” Their sincerity does not lessen their nuisance to others. Most of the biggest extremists are sincere.

This unsatisfactory Ziegler judgment is typical of the effect of the European Convention on Human Rights and should be changed by legislation. This largely explains the weakness of the police in these situations. It is difficult for them to be confident if a protester they arrest is charged. If he manages to convince a jury that he is sincere and that his conviction is not “necessary for a democratic society”, he can get away with it. How can juries solve this? They are there to determine the facts, not to maintain the balance of the constitution.

The police therefore fear that doing their job of quickly clearing the highway will get them in trouble. With this doubt in their minds, professional theologians go to great lengths to establish guidelines. The Policy Exchange report publishes the College of Policing’s “Five Step Appeal” model that guides officers dealing with protesters. It starts with “a simple call – ask the person to comply with your request”, and goes through “motivated call”, “personal call” and “final call” until “action – by then it’s usually too late to make much of a difference.

Added to this is the well-known police addiction to monopoly. Just Stop Oil protesters love to stick to artifacts in museums. All major museums have security and conservation experts who know how to pick up offenders very quickly, but the police forbid it and insist on sending their own crack team, which takes years.

A Public Order Bill is currently being considered by Parliament. It contains no useful provision on any of the above points. An amendment seeks to create 150-meter “buffer zones” around abortion clinics to prevent anti-abortionists from approaching pregnant women. The penalty would be six months in prison.

This would seem a classic example of the wrong way to go. The law of public order should not choose the causes it approves. We could end up with a situation where a woman who prays for a pregnant woman a hundred meters away goes to jail, while the maniacs who block the road for days in the interest of the revolution cannot be condemned. The law should not encourage one protester and ban another.

As with so much rights-based legislation, the current state of our law privileges annoying activists over the freedoms of people in general. In doing so, it undermines our model of policing by consent and pushes us to take justice into our own hands.

Thelma J. Longworth