What is this thing called Activist Legal Support?

Activist Legal Support is not just Legal Observing

Many people these days equate Legal Observing with “legal support” partly due to the relatively high visibility and profile of Legal Observing, particularly in Victoria – Legal Observers stand out whilst back-end legal support training / arrest support / court support is far less visible to anyone and therefore less understood.
In reality however- Legal Observing is one of the least important legal support roles in mass arrest scenarios – far less critical than arrest support roles, liaison with lawyers and the months of court support if and when people are charged.
In many ways activist groups, with limited resources,  should focus on building their own dedicated legal teams, forming relationships with friendly lawyers,  arranging legal briefings for activists and organising people to take on arrest support roles – long before they even think about organising their own Legal Observer Team.

So, what is Activist Legal Support?

A good legal support structure for groups engaging in protests that could be arrestable includes:
1) A Legal Support Team: 
 A dedicated team within the activist group who plan, organise and coordinate legal support. This includes speaking with / advising and seeking regular confidential advice from lawyers about actions that are planned, what are the potential charges, whose jurisdiction a particular site is and what are the possible penalties.  The team should be planning logistics, a network of lawyer contacts, organising police liaison, and coordinating a potentially large team of activists providing various legal support roles.   In some mass civil disobedience actions, the legal support team has an office, its own roster, comms system and budget.  Read about the S11 Legal Support Team here.

The Occupy Boston Legal Team Image: National Lawyers Guild US

2) Legal Information:
Arranging for clear, accurate, practical and realistic legal information to be provided to everyone who may be part of an action or campaign.  Information should be drafted and verified by a solicitor, written in ‘plain’ language – (avoiding legal jargon) and always couched in terms of what is potential or possible.  Police have discretion about when and what charges they lay, and courts have a lot of discretion in what penalties they provide so nothing is definite when providing activist legal information.   The aim is to provide information so that people can make fully informed decisions about whether to place themselves in an potentially arrestable scenario but not to scare people from taking action.

Two fabulous lawyers providing activist legal training. Image: MALS

This information can be provided in pamphlets, handbooks, blog posts or during activist trainings or in briefings before and during actions.  Legal briefings can happen anywhere, anytime but they need to be planned as part of the action and people need to be prepped to provide them.  They are best written or provided by lawyers or very well briefed para-legals.
3) Arrest Support: 
Arrest support roles are people who commit themselves to looking after the needs of people who are facing arrest or who get arrested at an action.  They need to monitor who is arrested, find our where they might be taken,  make sure  personal belongings are safe, friends contacted and ensure that someone is there to collect them when they get out of police custody.   Arrest support is a critical role. It might mean liaising assertively with police or watchhouse staff regarding the welfare of people inside, making sure people are not isolated or targeted, arranging lawyers, ensuring people in and have water and medical treatment – are safe and being treated properly.  Arrest supporters can also observe, record and make note of police behavior and monitor arrests for later legal defense – particularly if there are no Legal Observers present.   You dont have to have any legal training to do arrest support.

An Extinction Rebellion activist and their arrest support person at Oxford Circus in London. Image: BBC

It is easy to loose track of arrestees at mass actions. Good arrest support can make the difference between someone having a traumatic experience and someone coming out of custody inspired to get to the next action.
4) Court Support: 
Court cases can go for many months, sometimes years.  The activist campaigns should plan to support ALL those who face charges resulting for the action for the entirety of their court case.  This means helping them find legal representation / plan a legal strategy, support them if they plead guilty or not-guilty, fund-raise for fines,  organise for people to turn up at court appearances, assist with media throughout the case, be there for a victory celebration at the end, support the activists physically, emotionally, financially throughout.     You don’t have to have any legal training to do court support.

Three activists with their legal team. Image: Geco.org.au

Why is Legal Support Important?

We stress that a plan for on-going, hands-on legal support for protestors (such as during arrests and for court support) is essential, and is normally the most important aspect of legal support for activists.  It is even more important as public order policing becomes increasingly paramilitary – by deploying violence and force against groups of unarmed people.
We strongly encourage activist groups to look into and organise these forms of on-going legal support as a core part of your campaign planning.
The website www.activistrights.org.au has resources and downloadable PDF arrest support templates – https://www.activistrights.org.au/support_team_resources – which were originally designed for mass-arrest scenarios . – See below:
People in social movements are in it together, and we all have different roles to play.  Facing the full might of the police and the criminal justice system is frightening but something people have done throughout history. Planning good activist legal support builds movement resilience and make it more likely we will come out of it stronger
Our rights are routinely violated but movements are made stronger when people know their rights, vocalise them, and we respond collectively and assertively when they are.  Solidarity, in the streets, in police custody and in the courts is our most powerful tool.

There are three core aspects of Activist Legal Support: information, support and solidarity.

Legal information is best provided by lawyers or legal practitioners. Support is best provided by a well-organised legal support team. Other activists can only really provide solidarity. All three of these are crucial in good activist legal support.

What is the difference between Legal Observing and other forms of legal support?

Legal Observing is most effectively done by external / independent groups who can focus on civil and political rights rather than on the action itself.
Legal Observers (LOs) act as an independent, third party who monitoring police behaviour at protests and actions. This is known as ‘legal observing’.
Legal Observing takes activists away from these other arrest support roles so it is always wise to ask another group or organisation to take on that role.  MALS is one of the only legal support groups in Australia who regularly trains and fields Legal Observer Teams but community legal centres, church groups, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have all organised Legal or Human Rights Observer teams in different states in the past.
For big civil disobedience events it might be wise to approach one of these larger independent groups, with plenty of notice,  to provide a team of volunteer observers if they can  – and allow your activists to focus on the actual action.
In monitoring the police, Legal Observers compile evidence which can later be used in court if protesters are wrongly prosecuted, or wish to bring actions against the police.
Legal Observer teams aim to widen the political space to take protest action. Their presence can also provide both a feeling of safety and a deterrent effect on police.
As observers, Legal Observers are removed from the protest itself, which allows them to objectively and independently describe events. It is in this form that Legal Observers are most effective in monitoring police behaviour.
You can think of Legal Observing as just one of the many parts that provide shared social movement infrastructure , along with medical support (street medics) and groups that are dedicated to providing food to protesters (Food Not Bombs).
We may be able to help but we cant do everything: you can get in contact with MALS if you would like to request that MALS provide a Legal Observer Team at actions or demonstrations – or come along to one of our trainings.
But we are a small, all volunteer and entirely unfunded group.   There is simply no way we could organise legal support for every activist group, action or campaign in Melbourne.
YOU need to do that.
WE can just support, advise and provide resources where we can.
You can always contact us at melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

Our Activist Lawyers Network is launched!

A report on the launch of the Activist Lawyers Network

Lawyers network launched

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) launched our lawyers network with Amnesty International-Victoria on the 30th May 2017.

We heard from several lawyers with combined decades of experience in supporting activists and progressive causes – Matt Wilson (MALS) Rob Stary from Stary Norton Helphan, Meghan Fitzgerald from Fitzroy Legal Service and Danya Black from Environmental Justice Australia.

Rob Stary is well known in Melbourne for providing pro bono representation for activists, but also for working with people who have little resource and need support – his work for the people who other lawyers won’t touch is written about more in this recent article.

He shared a strong perspective on the trends of policing that we have seen in the last decade – describing them as “effectively a paramilitary force”.

One recently introduced piece of legislation was highlighted, the charge of “resisting emergency services workers” which now comes with a mandatory 6 month imprisonment… like so many laws, may have been purportedly designed for one purpose – in this case, a need to protect the important work that emergency workers do, but could be used against activists. He advised lawyers who may be briefing activists to be careful about how they talk about “resisting arrest” charges.

He also talked about patterns of police intelligence gathering. Many groups suspected of terrorism, no matter how tenuous the links, are infiltrated, and of course we all know that even peaceful activist groups are regularly surveilled and infiltrated. They will position themselves as just wanting “a friendly chat” and that they are concerned about them (you are the good guys, we are concerned about the bad guys) which will on

One case study that Stary referenced was the introduction of laws around “supporting directly or indirectly” terrorism. There was a deliberate attempt in 2007 to disrupt the funding of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka… being that “one persons terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” this can be problematic and a number of organisations who work with oppressed minorities in other countries have found themselves targeted with little option for recourse.

In this instance the Sri Lankan diaspora worldwide was supporting humanitarian efforts, and because Australia has no Bill of Rights it was targeted as the best country to stop the flow of resources. People were threatened with supporting a terrorist organisation, even as they sent money to aid and hospitals, and 100 warrants were issued for members of Tamil community. Many houses were raided. 40 000 innocent civilians were slaughtered in 2009. Stary believes that the efforts to send aid were important in providing healthcare and aid during this time.

And finally he reminded us that due to funding cuts to the community legal sector that you can only get legal aid if there is a realistic prospect of imprisonment. In short, we need pro bono legal support for progressive activists now, more than ever

Meghan Fitzgerald has a long history of providing legal support for progressive causes – working with Fitzroy Legal Service, who publish the brilliant activist rights website. She spoke about some successes and some losses – this has included important legal work such as advocating for the right of freedom of speech and assembly after the evictions of Occupy Melbourne – a case that was badly lost, she wryly commented, “lost it brutally, but fought it valiantly”… noting more broadly in an analysis we agree with, that whilst many painted Occupy as a failure, that worldwide it served to shift the discourse on economic justice, as well as provide important training and learning opportunities, and a new sense of community, for a generation of activists, “If it was a failure I was happy to participate in it,” she said.

Another important campaigns was a case in support of halting the East West Link construction. They legally argued the government was acting as a corporation, and called them on failing accountability to the community.

And one of the most inspiring groups she said she was worked with were the homeless community, through the Homeless Persons Union and their supporters, at the Bendigo St stockade – a six month long occupation of houses in Collingwood – the campaign involved communication, legal education, and supporting the discourse around urgent need for more public housing – with 30 000 people on a waiting list currently.

She also talked about how allies are conscientiously exercising their privilege to support and ensure voice is given to the people impacted by the issue. (And also noted that groups like RISE – refugees with lived experiences were important to support)

She also noted the long hours of work involved and the slow process of gained community trust, needing to work to consensus models and the unusual situation of being instructed by a collective, but noted it was the most rewarding work she had done saying, “supporting people who act in civil disobedience should be core duty for lawyers.”

Danya Jacobs has been a long time forest activist, and now a lawyer representing forest activists, and environmental causes – she has participated in substantive environmental law work.

She stated, “protest and civil disobedience has a long and proud history in protecting australia’s environment,” and noted an increasing level of sophistication from grassroots activists groups, such as (our fellow FOE affiliate) GECO who are using an effective mix of on ground direct action, in the form of citizen science, with protest and public advocacy.

This has come about (and been used successfully around the country in other campaigns we have supported such as Broome’s campaign to stop a gas hub, and their community science whale watching program) from a long history of grassroots activist’s DIY approach – they have educated themselves on the issues – it’s not about deferring that work to experts and government.

They have fundraised for the tools and now bring more people to understand and know the issue by community science camps, fauna surveys and using tools such as remote sensor cameras. This can then be combined with important legal work, such as the Brown Mountain case and others – as lawyers can use this data for legal challenges.

She has worked to support activists facing criminal charges for simply trespassing to survey the areas that Forestry Victoria haven’t, as well as people who use nonviolent direct action as a last stand to protect forest areas whilst other legal and political processes are in train, noting that it is an ongoing challenge to keep up with the laws that governments keep introducing to further criminalise this work.

Overall, it was an excellent informative evening, and it was brilliant to see 20 lawyers there, interested in becoming involved in supporting human rights, and environmental and social justice issues by providing pro bono support.

If you are a lawyer with a practicising certificate in Victoria, you can sign up to the lawyers network here. MALS will be providing training and support to lawyers to understand the needs of activists, and Amnesty International is coordinating the work. You can read about some of the roles lawyers can play in the network here.

If you are a lawyer interstate, check in with us at CounterAct – we often have a need for legal collaborators around the country.

If you are interested in getting involved with MALS we need volunteers – you don’t need to be a lawyer – we provide legal observers to events, “Know your rights” education sessions, and more.

With thanks to Amnesty International- Victoria, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, and all the MALS crew.

Nicola Paris,

Counteract

CounterAct supports and works with MALS and has found our work increasingly overlapping in recent years.


 

Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

Solicitors can play a vital role in protecting the civil, political and human rights of activists seeking positive change. They can help demystify the law and legal processes, provide concrete information and help activists make informed choices about protest action. Importantly, lawyers can reassure people engaged in civil disobedience by their presence, support and advocacy before, during and after a protest action.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) and Amnesty International (AI) Victoria are launching a specialist Activist Lawyers Network who are willing to act pro-bono for progressive activists and activist groups.

Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

The network’s core roles and functions will include:

(Journal photo by Ron Agnir)
Kate Savidan of the ACLU of West Virginia, holds up a pamphlet with legal information and phone numbers for legal counseling at a training session on Wednesday in Shepherdstown.1) Training and Advice for activist groups

MALS often receives requests for legal advice and legal briefings on topics such as police powers, protest rights and common charges to expect. Sometimes this is of a generic nature but often the legal advice needed is specific to a particular type of action or location. Often activist groups will want to know what the legal consequences of an action may be whilst they are at the planning stage. These legal briefings will generally be weeks or days before an action event or as part of a pre-arranged activist training session.

They could be an hour or two long and involve answering questions such as “what will happen to me if I am arrested?”

Related image

Lawyers at Kennedy Airport during the Muslim ban protests. Credit Victor J. Blue

2) Legal Briefings at protests

Solicitors can also be called upon to provide a legal briefing at an actual protest or just before it starts. This is usually a much quicker briefing for people who are just about to engage in some sort of protest action. Usually at this point the action is already planned and people might require some up-to-date legal information about what charges they might expect or what police could do, such as their search powers in a particular area. It will be usually be outdoors and quick.

3) Legal Observer Teams

Solicitors can act as legal observers but you can be called as a witness so you would not be able to represent activists later. But being on the ground with a team of legal observers is a very valuable role. Solicitors can work with the Legal Observers to discuss police tactics, move-on or arrests, assist with police liaison on behalf of the Legal Observer Team or people who have been arrested.

4) On Call Legal advice

For large actions we sometime run a mobile phone legal advice line that activists can call if they have a legal question or if they are arrested. It would involve lawyers being On-Call and being prepared to provide specific phone advice to people who may be in or just released from police custody. It may involve advising people about their rights in custody, to silence, fingerprints and searches as well as bail and bail conditions. It could involve being on an on-call roster with other solicitors.

4) In custody support

Solicitors can also be valuable protests involving mass arrests, to provide on-site legal advice to activists in police custody. This can involve going to the police station, requesting access to those in custody and providing initial legal advice in person. It can also involve advocacy around their treatment in custody, onerous bail conditions or release times. The presence of solicitors at police stations can be a strong protection against mistreatment.

Image result for ACLU legal training

5) Assisting with complaints about police

Activists often need assistance in making formal complaints about police misconduct. This can involve taking statements, collecting evidence including CCTV footage and assisting the activist lodge the complaint with police, IBAC or Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission. Complaints about police use of force can be important to challenge police human rights abuses and help maintain civil and political rights. Torts can arise and referrals to law firms or the Police Accountability Project are important.

6) Representation in court

Lawyers who can take on activists as clients can assist them prepare for court, advise around pleas and possible defenses and provide actual representation in court. Sometimes activists will face charges in a group at the same court and test cases can be arranged.   Solicitors need to be prepared for some activists not to plead guilty but instead seek to use their court appearance to further advance the campaign. Activists may want to attempt creative defenses or legal arguments and many will want to speak for themselves in court and to media before and after.

Increasingly, activists are seeing the court appearance as part of the campaign and lawyers can help devise effective court strategies to do this.

7) Advocacy & Law Reform

From time to time MALS provides submissions, organises forums or advocacy campaigns against particular anti-protest laws or repressive police powers. We may do this in concert or alone but the assistance of solicitors is invaluable in developing and drafting powerful submissions for the protection of civil and political rights.

REQUIREMENTS:

Lawyers will need to have an up-to date practicing certificate for the State of Victoria and will need to be covered by the Professional Indemnity Insurance through their current employer or practice.

ABOUT Melbourne Activist Legal Support

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) supports activists to defend their own civil and political rights though the provision of training, resources and up to date information regarding the rights to protest at law in the State of Victoria.

MALS can provide legal direct legal support at major demonstrations, monitoring police engagement with protesters through the deployment of legal observer teams if an when capacity allows.

We can provide legal information or training and help coordinate legal support in conjunction with law firms and community legal centres.