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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.