Lawyers must engage with Occupy issues

first_img Melanie Strickland is a solicitor and Occupy London supporter Remember To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch? The white lawyer who defends an innocent black man facing a rape charge, which he will inevitably be convicted of because it’s the deep south and the jury is racist? How many lawyers did Finch inspire with his refusal to compromise on justice? The reality of practice is rather different. For many (though not all), ‘justice’ is not a word that we would readily associate with our work. So when did the idea of justice cease to be a fundamental consideration of every aspect of a lawyer’s role (if it ever was)? It is time for lawyers to start talking about justice and engage with the issues raised by the Occupy movement. On 13 February, the Court of Appeal heard arguments for permission to appeal in the Occupy London eviction case. This appeared to be a chink of light in our somewhat cynical legal system, which, from Occupy’s perspective, legitimises and even facilitates the very injustices Occupy London is highlighting (such as the vast flow of money into the City of London originating from the shady activities of multinationals overseas; massive wealth transfer from ordinary taxpayers to the banks and bankers; and the devastation of the life support systems of our planet for profit). The chink of light was the apparent willingness of the judges (Lord Neuberger, and Lord Justices McFarlane and Stanley Burnton) to engage in the issues raised by the occupation. Occupy London Stock Exchange was camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral from 15 October until the early hours of 28 February. Occupiers claimed that the tents were intrinsic to the protest – this was not contested. The Corporation of London, owner of much of the land the camp was situated on and the relevant planning authority, was granted orders authorising the eviction. One of the major grievances of Occupy London is that corporations can vote in elections of the Corporation of London, which looks more like a ‘corporatocracy’ than a democracy. Court of Appeal judges heard from John Cooper QC appearing for Tammy Samede and persons unknown. Cooper was praised for acting pro bono and ‘in the best traditions of the legal profession’. Cooper presented a compelling argument with the legal tools available – contending that the relief granted was ‘more extreme and draconian’ than necessary, given that the defendants’ rights under articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly) of the European Convention on Human Rights were engaged. Would Emmeline Pankhurst have been told to confine her activities to the side of the road? And if she had been, wouldn’t our society be worse off had she acquiesced? Litigant in person Dan Ashman also spoke eloquently on the camp being an act of faith and roused the court’s attention by referring to Professor Conor Gearty’s article in the Occupied Times – ‘The true culprit was not in court’ – on the role of the cathedral and article 9 rights (freedom to worship). But as Lord Neuberger emphasised, the court had to decide the case according to law. We were reminded that the legal system is part of the broader ‘system’ that Occupy contends is unjust when the court refused permission to appeal, agreeing in full with Lindblom J’s judgment in the High Court. Eviction came just after midnight on 28 February; the occupation at St Paul’s is over. But this is not the end. The task now is to turn occupation into lasting change. This includes changes to the legal system. To begin this, Tent City University hosted a debate on 20 February – ‘Occupy law: the role of law in time of protest’ – with distinguished legal speakers including Professor Conor Gearty, David Wolfe and David Allen Green. Gearty told the audience that ‘no one who has articulated what the future will be has ever been regarded as anything less than absurd in the present’. He also spoke about the inadequacy of the Human Rights Act, when layered on to our highly unequal society. The most important right in society is the right to property, and corporations use this as both a sword and a shield against communities and the state. last_img

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