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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.