This article by Lynn Smith considers the law and arguments behind the attempts to evict the Occupy London protesters from their “Tent City” and elsewhere………
The “Occupy London” protests have joined a number of similar protests against the excesses of global capitalism. Stating that they represent the 99% of the population who do not receive large bank bonuses or Stock Market salaries, the movement started in Wall Street and has since spread to many cities around the world.
The London Sites Occupied
In London, the protesters’ wish was originally to occupy an area in front of the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, but this was cordoned off and they were prevented from doing so by the police.
So, on 15 October 2011, they famously pitched their “Tent City” in front of nearby St Paul’s Cathedral, an action which caused the resignation of two senior clerics and the temporary closure of the Cathedral for the first time since 1940.
There have been over 100 tents on the site, including ones used as a “university” and a “tea room”. The site has been visited by many high-profile figures including the Revered Jesse Jackson and Vivienne Westwood. The protesters are also reported to have received donations totalling in the region of £30,000. Published accounts show that they have spent around half of that on “running costs” such as portable lavatories and walkie-talkies. The accounts stated that they had around £14,500 in their account.
In addition to Tent City, on 22 October they also occupied an area in Finsbury Square and on 18 November, a large building in nearby Sun Street owned by a subsidiary of Swiss Bank, UBS. The protesters wanted this building (dubbed “The Bank of Ideas”), to be used by social and community projects, including a youth club which had had its funding cut, and people offering free education in protest against the rise in university tuition fees.
On 20 December the protesters also occupied the disused Old Street Magistrates Court, where they stated their aim to hold mock trials (“Trials of the 1%”) in front of a retired judge of high profile bankers in relation to capitalist activities which they regard as contrary to justice.
Legal Proceedings regarding Tent City
Following some negotiations between various parties, the Corporation of the City of London issued High Court proceedings for a possession order and an injunction.
St Paul’s Cathedral itself had considered proceedings, but then allowed the protesters to stay. In fact, it was reported that (of the occupied areas) the cathedral owned only the Cathedral steps and a small area around the statue of Queen Anne. The majority of the occupied land was a pedestrian walkway to the north of the cathedral, which was public highway owned by the Corporation of the City of London.
Proceedings were therefore issued by the Corporation after the protesters failed to comply with a deadline to clear the area by 17 November and removed eviction notices from their tents. The Corporation claimed an unlawful obstruction of the public highway.
In a contested hearing starting on 19 December, Counsel for the Corporation argued that the City was not seeking to stifle peaceable protests or freedom of speech, but after careful consideration, it was necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of visitors, worshippers and businesses.
Allegations have also been made in the press of “public nuisance”, with allegations of defecation, drink and drug abuse, spitting and aggression. There were also suggestions that homeless people unconnected with the protests had gone to the site to seek refuge.
On 23 December 2011, Mr Justice Lindblom (who had visited the site), said that he would make his final ruling as soon as possible after 11 January 2012.
Legal Proceedings regarding Sun Street “Bank of Ideas”
Sun Street Properties, a subsidiary of Swiss bank UBS, was granted an immediate and final possession order and an injunction against further occupiers by Mrs Justice Proudman in the evening of 18 November, the same day they entered the property. The hearing took place by telephone and the order was granted from the judge’s home. As it was a final possession order, enforcement officers were also lined up to take back possession.
The Occupy London movement challenged the ruling and argued before Mr Justice Roth that they had been given insufficient notice of the original hearing to allow them to attend to seek time to put their case. They argued that health and safety considerations had been addressed since the first night of the occupation and that the National Grid had reported that the electrics were safe.
Counsel for Sun Street Properties argued that the health and safety concerns were "not small". She said it was a case of a landowner "exercising a clear legal right" and did not want to lose their date with the enforcement officers.
Mr Justice Roth did not set aside the injunction and possession order.
However, the protesters were granted an extended stay of execution on 19 December and permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal, so were not evicted as originally planned.
Legal Proceedings regarding Old Street Magistrates Court
An interim possession action was brought by property developers, Mastcraft Limited, in relation to the Old Street Magistrates Court. A hearing was held at the Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court on 3 January 2012. The Occupy Justice protesters then announced their intention to vacate the Old Street Magistrates’ Court by 23 January, having reached an agreement with Mastcraft Ltd.
Occupy London said they would continue to hold their “Trials of the 1%” and stated on their website that they “would like to thank Mastcraft for having the imagination to work with us in giving this fine building a new lease of life – as well as perhaps the last ever trials to take place in the building – while it awaits redevelopment. We hope this agreement will serve as a model for others to follow.”
The publicity surrounding the occupation has prompted a range of views.
Some commentators applaud the protesters’ actions as standing up to an outrageously unfair system which caused the current recession and allowed its perpetrators to go unpunished while the ordinary citizen suffers.
Others consider that the protesters are (at best) an ineffectual, rag-tag bunch of do-gooders or (at worst) an eyesore, a health and safety risk, a public-order hazard or even a threat to the stability of society itself.
Even if the protesters leave or are removed from the various sites across London, it seems that their aims and wishes remain as strong as ever and the movement will continue for some time yet.
So, what do you think? Should they stay or should they go?