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
Advertisements

STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Unlawful use of OC Foam 25/6/2017

 

‘No Pride in Hate’ rally 25 June 2017, Melbourne, Australia

On Sunday the 25th of June 2017 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of five (5) trained Legal Observers at the ‘No Pride in Hate’ protest that took place between the Carlton Gardens and Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored and recorded interactions between Victoria Police and protesters throughout the 3-hour event.

Legal Observers witnessed two (2) incidents of use of OC aerosol foam during the event. After thorough review of video footage and witness statements, MALS has concluded that the use of OC foam in both of these incidents breached Victoria Police’s own use of force guidelines and regulations. (See VPM extract below)

Police, media representative and members of the public are reminded that the police use of force that falls outside police guidelines and regulations is serious and could be determined to constitute unlawful assault.

OC Spray Incident 1

OC Spray was deployed at 11.42 AM at South West corner of the intersection between Victoria Parade and Nicholson Street. Police had rapidly formed a north-south cordon to prevent protesters crossing north over Nicolson Street and clashing with a far-right group who at that stage, were still situated at south-east corner of Carlton Gardens.

A small number of protesters (approx 6) along south of Victoria Parade, can be seen pushing plastic road barriers away from the police line onto Victoria Parade. The police line was situated approx 5 metres east of protesters, in the middle of Victoria Parade. A group of media photographers and a Legal Observer were adjacent between the police line and the small number of protesters pushing the barriers.

At 11.42am one police member (name/number unknown), came out from behind the police line and deployed OC foam, appearing to target one protester who and had their back turned away from that police member and who was pushing a barrier further onto the road. The police member using the foam canister appeared to then spray it indiscriminately in the general direction of the barriers, and then directing it at the group of photographers and then in the direction of the Legal Observer present. The action was well documented with both written and video evidence. (see Figures 1 and 2 below).

The police member then turned and went back through the police line. This member was not identified.

At the time the OC foam was deployed, MALS saw no evidence of violence or serious physical confrontation by protesters directly towards police. Those affected by the OC foam had either their backs turned away from and were moving away from, the police line or were stationary, as were media, photographers and Legal Observer in the area covered by the spray.

Figure 1: OC Incident 1 – Photo showing people with backs turned away from police being sprayed. No threatening behaviour evident prior to spray. Photo by Legal Observer 25 June 2017

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: OC Incident 1 – Spray then directed toward the Legal Observer. Photo by Legal Observer 25 June 2017

 

 

 

MALS asserts the use of OC spray in this circumstance appeared to be an undisciplined and indiscriminate reaction to a loud and fast moving protest situation and was neither necessary nor proportionate to any risk faced by police members at that time. The OC spray did not appear to have served any protective or crowd–control purpose.

OC Spray Incident 2

A second OC spray incident occurred at approximately 1.00 PM at the north side of intersection between Latrobe and Russell streets in Melbourne’s CBD.

The main body of ‘No Pride in Hate’ protesters (approx 150-200) were marching north up Russell Street. Upon reaching the intersection a large contingent of police formed a line to block northward progress across the intersection and instead redirect protesters West down Latrobe Street.

This police manoeuvre appeared to be instigated in order to prevent further contact with the opposing protest group that was returning to the Carlton Gardens via Nicholson Street. At that point in the intersection, “No Pride in Hate’ protesters were surrounded on north, east and south sides by police lines. Police began loudly shouting “move, move” whilst physically pushing protesters in a westerly direction.

Whilst some protesters appeared to have already turned west, others in the group were prevented from moving in the direction by police lines. Others appeared to be refusing to comply with the police direction. Within a few seconds of the loud “move” direction from police, a member [name/number unknown] deployed OC spray from behind the police line directly into and over the large group of protesters.

It appeared to Observers present that the use of OC spray in this instance was a measure to force compliance with a direction to move, rather than a response to violence or serious physical threat to police or bystanders.

Street Medic groups treating those injured by OC spray reported fourteen (14) people severely incapacitated by the OC spray’s effects, and continued to provide treatment at the same intersection for two hours afterwards. Paramedics called to the scene by the Street Medic team arrived approximately one hour after the incident and treated five (5) of those most severely affected.

Approximately eight (8) Public Order Response Team (PORT) police members arrived at scene about 15 minutes after the paramedics, and were observed to instruct any protesters remaining, that were not being directly treated, to vacate the area. Police used physical force to pull some medics and support people away from those being treated.

This disruption to the treatment and care of injured people appeared unnecessary, as those present were not interfering with the paramedics and in most cases were actively assisting with after-care and treatment. By forcibly moving medics and carers away from people being treated this police action added to the distress of those suffering from the OC spray.

 

KEY POINTS:

  • In each of these two circumstances police were dealing with fast moving protest situation and a loud, chanting and certainly noncompliant group of protesters. Despite this, police did not appear to be facing a violence or serious physical confrontation that would warrant such use of force under common law requirements or 462A Crimes Act;

 

  • The use of OC spray appeared to be deployed in order to force compliance or move protesters;

 

  • The use of OC spray in these two circumstances was used contrary to Victoria Police guidelines. OC spray should not be used as a crowd control tool or to force compliance. (See VPMG extract below).

 

  • In both incidents the OC spray affected an array of people in a seemingly indiscriminate manner; either over a large number of people in a crowd or toward third parties such as media photographers or Legal Observers;

 

  • This use of OC spray reflects similar incidents at other Victorian protest events where OC spray has been sprayed directly at people not directly confronting police or third parties such as Street Medics or media. This reoccurrence may indicate a training and policy issue with its use in protest and crowd situations.

 

  • MALS is deeply concerned by the use of OC spray onto members of the media and independent Legal Observers. Under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, Legal Observers have a right to fulfil their role unhindered and without obstruction.

 

  • MALS recommends that Victoria Police specifically note the role of civilian Legal and Human Rights Observers within its Crowd Control VPMG and for Forward Commanders to brief operational members of the requirement to ensure the safety and access of Legal Observers who may be present at subsequent protest events.

 

  • MALS also recommends that Victoria Police specifically note the role of civilian medical and first aid groups within its Crowd Control VPMG and for Forward Commanders to brief operational members of the requirement to ensure the safety and access of civilian first aiders who may be present at subsequent protest events.

 

  • MALS is also aware of issues concerning the treatment and mis-gendering of trans people who were searched by police under the Control of Weapons Act powers. These are the subject of separate complaints.

 

 

Appendix: Victoria Police Manual 2017 – Procedures and Guidelines(VPMG)

Operational safety and equipment

3.2 Use of OC aerosols

  • As stated in VPMP Operational safety and equipment, members must only use force in accordance with legal requirements (e.g. 462A Crimes Act, common law). In keeping with this, members should only use OC aerosols where they believe on reasonable grounds it is necessary and proportionate in situations: – of violence or serious physical confrontation

– where violent or serious physical confrontation is imminent

– where a person is involved in violent or other physical conduct likely to seriously injure themselves or result in suicide

  • Members should not use OC aerosols when a person is only passively resisting e.g. simply hanging limp or refusing to comply with instructions only.

 

 

This Statement is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), and other agencies upon request.

For enquiries please contact: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

  • Facebook/MelbourneActivistLegalSupport
  • Twitter/ActivistLegal

https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/

Public Statement: Reclaim Australia and Counter Rallies 18/7/2015

18 July 2015, Melbourne, Australia

On Saturday the 18th of July 2015 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of eight (8) trained Legal Observers at the Reclaim Australia and counter rallies that took place near the intersection of Spring and Bourke Streets in Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored the actions of Victoria Police and recorded evidence throughout the 5 hour event.

We note that Victoria Police had a large presence and cordoned off the entire intersection in front of Parliament House. MALS acknowledges that Victoria Police efforts were directed at maintaining space between two opposing political groupings on the day in order to avoid physical confrontation.

Areas of concern:

Legal Observers noted several incidents of use of OC foam/spray by a specialist unit of Victoria Police at the event. According to the Melbourne Street Medics upwards of 100 people had to be treated because of the use of this spray. OC spray/foam causes severe burning for several hours, incapacitation and can affect the respiratory system causing breathing difficulties.

A particular area of concern was an incident that occurred at the corner of Spring and Little Bourke Streets at approximately 12:43 PM.  An ad-hoc medic triage station had been set up on Little Bourke Street near the corner. One patient was semi-conscious on the ground and under the care of the Street Medics and waiting for the ambulance. A physical altercation between rival protestors began directly in front of the medic station when Police rushed around the corner and immediately and without warning sprayed into the crowd of 60-80 people present. Street Medics and other volunteers who were trying to keep the medic triage area clear were severely affected by the OC foam as were most people in the area (including journalists and bystanders). The injured person receiving care was again affected by the OC spray.

According to Legal Observers present the OC foam was not directed towards individuals who were threatening police or engaged in violence but instead was directed over and onto the entire crowd of people present. For this reason the MALS Legal Observer Team identifies the use of OC foam in this circumstance as indiscriminate and therefore unlawful.

MALS condemns the use of OC Foam against members of the public who were already injured and medical staff whose presence was made clear to police on a number of occasions before this incident occurred.

In the future as our group increases in capacity we hope to be able to provide more comprehensive assistance in such instances, however we would like to share the following information in the meantime:

We encourage people who want to take further action to immediately record all details from the event, including as much factual detail as possible, and to make duplicates of any footage of incidents depicting inappropriate use of force.

If any individuals or groups wish to submit a formal complaint about police conduct during the event please contact:

Police Complaints Advice Clinic

Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre
Phone: (03) 9376 4355
Email: fklegal@fkclc.org.au

& Website

If you would like to make a complaint directly without checking in with Flemington Kensington:

Police Conduct Unit

GPO Box 913
Melbourne VIC 3001
Telephone: 1300 363 101
Email: PSC-POLICECONDUCTUNITCOMPLAINTSANDCOMPLIMENTS@police.vic.gov.au

Check this page on the activist rights website for more information about making a complaint about police conduct.