The police imposed the four-day ban on October 14 — the final week of the movement’s two-week campaign of civil disobedience in the city — prohibiting any assembly of more than two people linked to the October protests dubbed the “Autumn Uprising.”
Section 14 of the UK’s Public Order Act 1986 is aimed at preventing “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption.” Critics said the decision to deploy it for the Extinction Rebellion protests was an overreach of police powers.
In his ruling on Wednesday, Lord Justice Digemans said: “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 Section 14 of the 1986 Act.
“The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from October 14 to 19 was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it under Section 14 of the 1986 Act.”
However, he also noted that there were powers within the act which might be lawfully used to control future protests deliberately designed to “take police resources to a breaking point.”
Extinction Rebellion’s campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience centers on mass arrests.
‘A landmark decision’
Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer with Extinction Rebellion’s legal strategy team, told CNN: “We’re overjoyed. It is a landmark decision in a way that it reaffirms our right to protest and it makes clear to the police that they are not going to be allowed to use powers that they don’t have.”
In a statement, the Met said it was disappointed with the ruling and would now “carefully consider the judgment before deciding on our next steps.”
Since it launched a year ago, Extinction Rebellion has grown into an international movement. The decentralized organization has attracted tens of thousands of protesters to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at forcing government action on the climate crisis.
During the shutdown in the heart of London, which began on October 7, protesters targeted areas around Parliament, the Bank of England and London City Airport. Police had tried to restrict the protesters to Trafalgar Square, in central London, under Section 14.
The Met has said more than 1,800 people were arrested during October’s non-violent action, 400 of them after the ban was introduced, including Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley. As of November 6, 165 had been charged.
The fortnight-long protests cost the police at least £24 million ($31 million) — higher than the £15 million the Met spends annually on its violent crime taskforce — and 21,000 officers were placed on 12-hour shifts during the October campaign.
Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said in a statement: “The decision to apply the conditions on 14 October on the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’ protest was not taken lightly.”
Ephgrave described the situation at the time as “untenable,” saying protesters had created “unacceptable and prolonged disruption to Londoners.”
He continued: “After eight days of continual disruption we took the decision to bring an end to this particular protest, a decision which we believe was both reasonable and proportionate.
“I want to be clear; we would not and cannot ban protest. The condition at the center of this ruling was specific to this particular protest, in the particular circumstances at the time.”
The court ruling could lead to more legal action against the police, as protesters detained under the ban could seek compensation for unlawful imprisonment.
Ellie Chowns — a Green Party Member of the European Parliament who was arrested and kept in a police cell for five hours under the blanket ban — said the ruling was a “very important victory for the principle for the right of assembly and the right to protest, which is so central to a functioning democracy.”
She added: “This is a very important judgment because it is going to make the police think twice about putting in place such blanket conditions, and sweep up people behaving in a perfectly reasonable and democratic manner.”