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PUBLIC ORDER BILL – Raj Chada, Leading Criminal Defence Solicitor Shares His Views On Proposed Reforms

Raj Chada, head of Hodge Jones & Allen’s Criminal Defence team responded to questions from the BBC

Can you explain a bit more about these proposed changes and when they may come into effect?

“The provisions in the Public Order Bill includes:

  • Banning individuals from joining protests
  • Expanding powers of stop and search on the grounds that they might be planning to commit a protest related offence
  • A new offence of ‘locking on’
  • Obstructing major transport works
  • Interfering with national infrastructure projects
  • Tunnelling

And, many of those provisions need there to be “serious disruption” as the gateway for the police to act.

‘The Government wants to redefine what is a ‘serious disruption’ so, the Police can act before it even reaches that threshold on the basis that it is going to escalate. In addition, series of protests can be treated, as one, and the Police can consider long running campaign over weeks rather what is actually happening that day.”

What are your concerns about these proposals?

“Protest has been regarded as the lifeblood of our democracy which is so much more than a visit to the ballot box once, every 4 or 5 years.
It means a free press, a vibrant civic society and the right to protest

Protests have achieved so much over the years, be it the suffragettes, the anti-apartheid or civil rights movement.

These laws curb the right to protest in two ways :

  1. They set the scene that disruptive protest is wrong – which is legally and morally illiterate
  2. And then, they give the police a blank cheque to say when the threshold of serious disruption has been crossed.

Let’s be clear what this really is – it is a strike against those who disagree with the current government – climate protestor, Black Lives Matter protestors and in future those that are striking for better public services. It is about striking back at court cases where the government did not like the result.

It is profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian. It will not deter those that are committed to large scale disruption, but instead have the chilling effect of anyone that wants to go on protest.”

When it comes to disruptive protests – surely the police should have the right to intervene if protests are causing problems for the general public?

“Of course, the police must balance the rights of protestors with the rights of others. That was said plainly in Supreme court case in 2021 where it was held that disruptive protest was a right protected under the Human Rights Act. The police and the courts had to balance rights on the basis of various factors.

The Government has sought to undermine that ruling at every opportunity. Rather than use that balance and consider the factors in each individual case, the Government wants to rests the process so that it is tilted against protest. It is in effect criminalising our right to protest.

What about when it comes to South Asian heritage communities and the history of protest…what are some of the stories of protests by these communities either in South Asia or here in the UK

“There is a proud tradition of those of South Asian heritage when it comes to taking to the streets to effect change in the face on injustice. In fact, many would say that campaigns of mass peaceful civil disobedience are, of course based on Gandhi and the fight for Indian Independence. The images of the Salt protests where it seemed half of India was imprisoned in ignoring unjust British rules and laws.

Those of South Indian heritage have always lived up to those tradition of fighting injustice through protest and solidarity.

I have always been inspired by women of the Grunwick dispute, the strikers in saris who led a a campaign for better pay and conditions and union recognition at their factory. They attracted the support of the entire trade union movement in London and beyond and indeed Labour Cabinet Ministers went on the picket line. If only that could be repeated today.

We stand tall for the tradition of dissent – In the words of Jysben Desai, their leader
“Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager”

Those that are fighting for action on the climate crisis , for equality are the lions today.”

So what in your view should be done to help police deal with protests when they become disruptive?

They need some fundamental training on human rights and protest – but they also need oversight and accountability.