Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Award winning solicitor says all dissent is now seen as a threat

An award-winning solicitor who helped overturn 20 climate change protestors’ convictions for conspiracy to committed aggravated trespass at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in 2009 is speaking in Liverpool today. [February 1st 2012] 
The cases, and further charges against six for conspiring to take over the power station, collapsed after the Court of Appeal ruled the police had unlawfully used an undercover officer – Mark Kennedy – to spy on protestors and encourage civil disobedience.    
For his role in this, and many other public order and civil demonstration work, Mike Schwarz was last year’s Law Society’s private practice solicitor of the year winner.
Schwarz, who works for London firm Bindmans, will be presenting his views on Latest Themes on Protest Law at the Institute of Employment Rights conference on ‘Human Rights at Work: can the European Convention protect our rights?’ This will be held in the Adelphi Hotel.
 “I am speaking because in the current climate it is vital that bonds are built between everyone affected by the government’s austerity measures and there is sharing of knowledge about how to respond including how to fully exercise the right to protest without being intimidated – if only by lack of knowledge – by the resistance the police may put up” says Schwarz, a solicitor since 1992, and who fears the authorities, government and some sections of the press now see any dissent as a threat. 

“As a result the police, in order to maintain the status quo and control appear to see facilitating the right to protest as being much lower down their agenda. Kettling, surveillance of protestors, and prosecutions for minor public order offences such as aggravated trespass and disorderly conduct are a few examples of this strategy” he warns “

But surely no-one has anything to fear if they engage in peaceful protest? “Sadly, I have to disagree” says Schwarz “as evidence, contrast, the application of the full force of the criminal law to the UK UNCUT protestors - found guilty of aggravated trespass - at Fortnum and Mason in March 2011 to the mainstream political parties’ refusal to tackle the cause of these protests – tax dodging, bankers bonuses and inequitable cuts to public services.”

Schwarz would like to see a public inquiry into the actions of the use of undercover officers by the police. Back in the 1990s he found himself unknowingly representing Met officer Jim Boyling, who used the name Jim Sutton to infiltrate the Reclaim the Streets campaign group that often disrupted London’s roads to highlight the overuse of cars. 

Boyling, who like Kennedy, also started a relationship with one of the women he was surveilling – later marrying her – is accused of gaining access to the privileged legal correspondence of fellow defendants and misleading the court. Boyling is currently on restricted duties and under investigation for a possible breach of professional standards following his marriage. Meanwhile, Kennedy has quit the police.

“The legal process has been institutionally corrupted with the entrapment of protestors, the formation of sexual relationships, the planting of informants within defence legal teams, the failure to disclose key evidence and a readiness to mislead the courts about the true identity of police witnesses and defendants. The response of the establishment, in setting up 12 discrete in-house enquiries, shows they have a pathological aversion to seeing the bigger picture, which is not that of a few apples but the cultivation of an orchard of bad fruit” says Schwarz critically.

Neither is Schwarz too impressed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s regular raising of the possibility of the government replacing the European Convention of Human Rights with a UK one.

“I feel the move fits with one of the rules of bad government such that when difficult questions are being asked then make up your own rules and get your own people to decide the answers. For protestors against government policy, or big business, it can only be a backward step. It’s worth remembering protest is often the best and most immediate way that those without a voice – who can’t pay lobbyists or contribute to party funding – can try to influence government policy” says the 48-year-old.


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