Civil Liberties, Constitutional Law, Coronavirus, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Human Rights, Politics, Scots Law

The lockdown and public protest

On 25th May 2020 the world was shown a video of a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, being restrained on the ground by a number of police officers in Minneapolis. That video showed one police officer kneeling on the back of his neck for almost nine minutes. Mr Floyd died and the police officers involved have been charged with a range of offences, including one officer being charged with murder. The footage has rightly caused anger around the world. This anger has resulted in riots happening in various places around the United States of America and protests have been held around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Protests have been planned for the forthcoming weekend in Scotland.

The first half of 2020 has seen governments across the world try to deal with COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first seen in the Wuhan province of China in late 2019. Figures available at the current time place COVID-19 as the leading cause of death globally in 2020 so far. Governments throughout the world have been responding to the virus by placing varying degrees of restrictions on those who live within their jurisdiction in an effort to try and contain the virus. Whether these restrictions are the best way to go about achieving this aim is something that has been debated since the restrictions started to come in, but this post is not going to consider that question. What this blog post aims to do is consider how the right of assembly in Article 11 of the ECHR interacts with the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 (“the lockdown regulations”).

The lockdown regulations were made by Scottish Ministers on 26th March 2020 under powers conferred upon them by the Coronavirus Act 2020; they came into effect immediately. The Scottish Government has also published guidance on the lockdown and I have considered the interaction between the law and the guidance before (mainly in the context of the powers of the police and the approach to policing adopted in some parts of the United Kingdom). The lockdown regulations are what is known in law as “subordinate legislation”; that is, they are laws that have been made not by Parliament itself, but by government ministers exercising powers delegated to them by Parliament; in this case, it is power delegated to Scottish Ministers by the United Kingdom Parliament. When ministers are making subordinate legislation they cannot exceed the authority given to them by parliament. That is to say, if subordinate legislation made by Ministers includes something which Parliament has not given them the power to do then the courts can strike down the subordinate legislation to the extent that it exceeds Ministers powers (i.e. it is outside the Minister’s competence)

In Scotland, under section 57(2) of the Scotland Act 1998, Scottish Ministers do not have the power to make any subordinate legislation where it is incompatible with the rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (i.e. those rights listed in Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998). That includes both the right to freedom of expression (Article 10) and the right to freedom of assembly (Article 11). The lockdown regulations therefore always have to be read in a way that is compatible with the convention rights and where they cannot be read in compatibly with them, they will be outwith the competence of Scottish Minisers and “not law”.

Regulation 6 of the lockdown Regulations prohibits all gatherings in a public place of more than two people except in a list of specific circumstances. None of which would reasonably apply to a public protest. It is an offence to fail to comply with Regulation 6; however, Regulation 8(4) of the lockdown regulations provides a defence to an infringement of a Regulation 6 where the person has a “reasonable excuse”. Most will, by now, be familiar with the “reasonable excuse” provisions, but mainly in connection with Regulation 5, which provides that no person may leave the place that they are living except with a reasonable excuse. In respect of a public protest there are two parts of the lockdown regulations in play: there is Regulation 5, which comes into play when a participant leaves the place that they are living and then there is Regulation 6, when the arrive at the place where the protest is to take place.

In this post, I am only going to focus on the relationship between Regulation 6 and Article 11. That is because, if the protest would be lawful under Regulation 6 then it would follow that a person leaving the place where they live to attend the protest would be a reasonable excuse. To say otherwise, would be an absurd reading of Regulation 5 in the context of the lockdown regulations as a whole.

Article 11

This Article provides that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others. However, as with nearly all of the convention rights it is not an absolute right and can be subject to restrictions which are “prescribed by law” (for example Regulation 6 of the lockdown regulations) and which are “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

The European Court of Human Rights has held that the exceptions in Article 11 are to be construed strictly and that only convincing and compelling reasons can justify restrictions. The restrictions must be in the pursuance of a legitimate aim and must be proportionate to that aim. The government has to be able to show a rational connection between the restrictions and the legitimate aim being pursued.

The lockdown regulations have been made for a specific purpose, which is set out in the preamble to the lockdown regulations which states that they have been “made in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of coronavirus in Scotland.”

The Government has been clear throughout that large public gatherings of people pose a particular risk in respect of the spread of coronavirus. However, there are a number of things that need to be consider. Is the complete ban on public gatherings as included in Regulation 6 proportionate to the legitimate aim being pursued? Is there a less severe restriction that could be placed upon people? Also, there is, I would suggest, a difference between indoor and outdoor gatherings (indeed, the Government’s own guidance draws that distinction on meeting family members). Another relevant factor, I would suggest, is that a public protest is different in nature to a gathering for a football match or a music concert.

I have previously expressed concern that the apparent complete ban on public protest is something that is unlikely to be compatible with the convention rights, even in the current circumstances. For example, a protest which takes place in a large open space where everyone is staying at least 2m away from people who are not members of their own household and where appropriate face coverings and other protective clothing (such as gloves) are being worn may well present a difficulty for the Government. That is not to say that it would be impossible for the Government not to show that banning such a protest is a proportionate means of meeting their legitimate aim; only, that it will be considerably more difficult than, say, defending the ban as it relates to sports fixtures. However, on balance, there is, I think, a strong basis for suggesting that the Government would ultimately be successful in defending the current position if it was forced to, but in doing so it would be facing a reasonably strong argument that its actions were unlawful.

The subject-matter of the protest also has, I think, to play a part in the balancing exercise as well. Is it a protest that could reasonably be delayed to a point where the restrictions are less stringent than they are now or would the effectiveness of the protest be undermined if it were to be delayed? Clearly, the black lives matter campaign is front and centre in the global news cycle at the moment and that is, I think, a factor which would need to be weighed into the consideration. However, equally, the campaign is one that has (sadly) been going on for a very long time and is almost certainly going to need to continue beyond now. It is a depressing reality that there continues to exist in our world a significant degree of racism and racial prejudice. On balance, I’m not convinced that an urgency argument would necessarily tilt the balance against the government.

It may also be worth noting that the High Court in England and Wales refused interim injunctive relief in a judicial review in a challenge brought to the English equivalent provisions and brought with the aim of enabling a mosque to open for Friday prayers at the end of Ramadan. That case was concerned with Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), but it is worth of note. In that case Mr Justice Swift did not think that “there [was] any realistic likelihood that the Claimant’s case on Article 9 will succeed at trial”. There are, of course, important difference between the cases: (1) the concern different convention rights; and (2) the circumstances are quite different – one concerns indoor gatherings while the present context is concerned with outdoor gatherings. Furthermore, it deals with different (albeit substantially similar) statutory provisions, but with the same underlying reasoning. Despite his findings, the judge granted permission for the judicial review to proceed. There are a number of challenges in England and Wales to the lawfulness of the lockdown generally, or to particular sets of circumstances. Some, on a first appearance, are stronger than others.

Reasonable Excuse

One other matter that should be mentioned is the “reasonable excuse” defence to a charge of breaching Regulation 6. Regulation 8(5) provides the non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses that we have all become very familiar with over the past weeks. None of the examples listed would cover a public protest; however, it is not a complete list. It would be open to argue that a public demonstration on a matter of public interest is something that falls within a “reasonable excuse”. Whether the court would accept that it was a reasonable excuse standing the reasons behind it is another question altogether. I’m not convinced that a court would find the protest as a reasonable excuse to be in a gathering of more than two people outside of the circumstances provided for in Regulation 6.

Conclusion

I am not going to say that the protests definitely are legal or illegal; that is not something that can be said with complete certainty and would, ultimately, be a matter for the courts to determine. However, while I have some concerns that a complete blanket ban on all public protests might not be convention compliant, the court is only going to be concerned with whether restricting the protest concerned was or was not a breach of convention rights. On balance, however, I think it likely that the protest would be a breach of Regulation 6 and that the interference with the Article 11 rights would be considered a proportionate means of pursuing the legitimate aim of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and that it is rationally connected to that aim. It is not the job of the courts to decide on policy, only whether the policy is lawful. There may be alternative ways of achieving that aim and the court may, if it were the decision maker, have favoured one of those other ways; however, that is not the test. If the policy decision is lawful, then the existence of another decision that the court would have preferred is irrelevant. I may, of course, be wrong on both of these matters. The issues are complex: the right to freedom of assembly is a vitally important right in a democracy, but the circumstances in which we find ourselves are truly extraordinary.

I am not going to say whether people should or should not participate in a protest this weekend. That is a matter for them. If people do attend a protest in Scotland this weekend they need to consider that doing in doing so it is likely that the will be committing a criminal offence. Equally there may be a defence to that offence or grounds to challenge the lawfulness of the regulations in terms of their compatibility with convention rights. There are processes for dealing with such arguments should anyone ultimately be prosecuted and wish to take the argument. However, they should also consider that there is no guarantee, or even a strong prospect, of those defences or challenges succeeding. I cannot, as a solicitor, encourage people to break the law.

The Scottish police have, generally speaking, handled the policing of the lockdown far better than their colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom. What action they will take is, of course, something for them to consider. Whether they would try to breakup a protest that was peaceful, socially distanced and in which the participants were taking all reasonable precautions not to spread the virus is something that I wouldn’t like to express a view on, but I would hope that they would approach the situation proportionally taking into account that the issues are very different to, for example, the gatherings that were seen last weekend around Scotland. The Chief Constable indicated today at the Scottish Governments briefing that Police Scotland had been working with some of those involved in the protests this weekend; I would encourage (for what it is worth) anyone organising a protest to engage constructively with Police Scotland. I would also encourage anyone who attends a protest to approach any engagement that they have with the police (whether that be Police Scotland or the British Transport Police) in a courteous and constructive manner.

It is not just the protest itself that needs to be considered, but how people are getting there. The use of public transport and people travelling from some distance away to attend the protest is all something that needs to be factored in. An increased number of people using public transport to get to the protest is likely to increase the risk to those who work on the transport system and also to those who are using the transport system to get to work that they cannot do from home (in particular, NHS staff). People travelling from far and wide also, one would assume, comes with risk of them becoming carriers of the virus which could result in increased numbers of infections throughout the country. These are considerations that should not, in my view, simply be dismissed or minimised. They are very real concerns. The basis of the government’s restrictions on gatherings is to limit as much as possible contact which is likely to enable the virus to spread within the community.

Finally, none of the above should be taken as formal legal advice. It is not intended as such; it is merely a consideration of some of the issues that arise. If I were to write a full appraisal of the matter, fully referenced with authority, this post would be far longer than it already is. This blog post has gone through several iterations and when I started to write it I did so with no clear idea where it would end up; such are the complexity of the issues at hand.

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