Law: The Right to Dissent ; the Extent of Anti-War Protests May Have Taken the Government by Surprise, Says PENNY LEWIS. but Could the Law Be Employed to Prevent Them?
Lewis, Penny, The Independent (London, England)
As the body-bag count from the Iraq conflict rises, so might the tempo of anti-war opposition at home. The high profile accorded to the peace lobby - not merely due to sheer numbers, but also to the "conscientious objectors" who have united people across the political spectrum - must have shocked Tony Blair. Speaking of the experience in Northern Ireland, David Ford, leader of the Alliance party, said that "reaction there was on a par with England".
If "spontaneous" or organised demonstrations continue, questions will arise as to what legal measures could and should be taken to counter protests at both civil and criminal levels. These events need delicate handling, as those in Northern Ireland know.
In an unprecedented development, hordes of schoolchildren have participated in protests, many playing truant. The education law specialist Tim Oliver, a partner at Plexus Law, outlines the legal repercussions for schools and parents: "The Education Act 1966 makes it an offence for a parent to fail to secure their child's regular attendance at school. It is also an offence if the parent is aware that their child is not attending regularly at school and then fails without reasonable justification to cause him to attend." Genuine reasons for absence include "sickness and religious observance or with leave from the school".
Oliver points to a lack of "statutory offences in the event that a school allows a child to willingly play truant. This would be a matter for the local authority education department to deal with". He anticipates that "most schools would say that they had given specific leave to attend the rallies and therefore neither they nor the parent were in breach of any legislation. That may be acceptable in limited circumstances, but if the school regularly granted leave for those reasons then almost certainly the education authority would use its powers through Ofsted to close the school down."
As for employees taking unauthorised time off to join rallies, Laurence Anstis, an employment lawyer with Boyes Turner, says that such "a protest about an event unrelated to work would be a breach of their employment contract and they will be vulnerable to dismissal. Employees taking part in official industrial action have special protection, but this is only available where the action is official and can only relate to `trade disputes'. The war on Iraq is not a trade dispute."
In contrast to the annual May Day marches, which have frequently erupted in violence, the peace rallies have been largely trouble- free. Nevertheless, demonstrations divert overstretched police resources from vital tasks. There may also be a potentially demoralising effect of dissent on service personnel. Receiving e- mail or television broadcasts concerning the unrest could dishearten those risking their necks in combat.
The barrister Rambert de Mello, an expert in human rights law, confirms that participating in political demonstrations is not illegal: "If you, together with a group of people, peacefully assembled to express an opinion regarding the Government's role in the invasion of Iraq, such a group is entitled under Articles 10 and 11 [of the Human Rights Convention] to express their views freely." It is only when other people's rights are infringed that legal action might be appropriate. …