Trying to evict OccupyLSX

The court battle begins to clear St Paul’s Churchyard.

At 10.30 this morning at Court 25 in the Royal Courts of Justice, there will be a "case management conference" for the case formally known as Mayor, Commonalty & Citizens of the City of London v Persons Unknown (being persons taking part in a protest camp at St Paul's Churchyard, London EC4).

This is the start of an attempt by the Corporation of London to use legal means to evict the "Occupy LSX" protestors. No judicial decision on the eviction will be made today. The hearing is essentially for setting out a timetable for the litigation process. There is a good chance the hearing will be adjourned, given it is clear the Corporation has been planning this move for at least a couple of weeks, whilst the protesters have had only a few days to consider the complex legal case against them.

In a move exceptional for a normally opaque public body, the Corporation have published links to the relevant legal materials and have even uploaded their 88 page "proceedings bundle". This sudden effort at transparency is probably more for the tactical reason of allowing the Corporation to say that the protesters have access to the case against them than any Pauline conversion to freedom of information.

The Corporation's bundle makes interesting reading. Superficially it appears formidable, a combination of complicated statements of case, detailed plans, and various supporting witness statements and letters. However, a close reading indicates that the Corporation's position is not as strong as they would hope.

Many experienced litigators -- the lawyers who specialise in disputes -- would say that the shorter the claim form, the stronger the case. Indeed, if the Corporation thought it had an overwhelming case, it would need a proceedings bundle of only about ten pages: establishing title and powers under the applicable legislation, and perhaps the bare observation that the trespassers should get "orf the land" and clear the highway.

However, the Corporation has found that this matter is going to be a little more complicated than that: it has conceded that this is a Human Rights Act matter. Accordingly, as well as the mundane documentation of applicable legislation and of the property and allied rights that can be asserted, the bundle contains evidence seeking to show that there is a "pressing social need" behind its decision which means that clearing the tents is proportionate and legitimate interference with the protesters' rights of free expression and assembly. However, one may doubt that the undemocratic Corporation -- which makes its key decisions in closed meetings -- is actually well placed to make a good determination of the public interest in this (or any other) case. As a public body, the Corporation sorely lacks legitimacy in respect of public interest matters.

All the Corporation's evidence can, of course, be contested by the protesters. The Corporation cannot get their case through just on the nod. Each paragraph in the bundle can be controverted by evidence in the form of witness statements and other evidence. By going with an 88 page bundle, the Corporation opened itself to the potential of a complex and equally lengthy response which, if anything, will slow the litigation down. And this may be possible as the protesters are currently represented (without charge) by the outstanding lawyers John Cooper QC and Karen Todner.

Of particular interest in the bundle (pages 39 and 40) is a rather curious letter from St Paul's Cathedral, dated 11 November 2011, which contains some serious though unsubstantiated allegations. What makes this letter particularly odd is that the Cathedral itself is not taking any action at all against the protesters on the Cathedral's land. Therefore, one interpretation which can be placed on this letter is that the Cathedral is seeking to get the Corporation to do its work for it; that the Cathedral can get the benefit of legal action against the protesters whilst continuing to pose publicly as seeking reconciliation with the protesters. If so, then the Cathedral can be reasonably criticised as being rather two-faced in this matter. If the Cathedral actually believes what it says in that letter then there can be no good reason why it is not seeking to evict the protesters itself.

Any eviction is now not likely to occur until the new year. But it is not inevitable. The Corporation may fail to show that its intended action is a proportionate interference with the rights of the protesters. It may even fail to establish title to the relevant property, or that it has the powers and rights it purports to have under the applicable legislation. There is even the chance that this litigation may backfire on the Corporation, opening the institution to more unwelcome scrutiny. So a lot may be at stake in this legal case which starts today in the Royal Courts of Justice.

 

Update

The High Court hearing of the full case will start on 19 December 2011. OccupyLSX will need to submit their case by 12 December 2011. The judgment is likely to be reserved to the new year.

 

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage