Dealing with the threat of occupational protest action

Martin Edwards

Recent Occupy London protests around St Paul’s and the London Stock Exchange, as well as the occupation of a number of UK university campuses by students, has highlighted the conflict between the rights of private landowners and the rights of those wishing to protest by occupying buildings and other land.

The issue can be seriously disruptive, causing landowners a serious headache as well as considerable expense. Centres of learning are particularly vulnerable to such actions given the extensive range of property on campus – not to mention the time-honoured tradition of student protest.

While the right to protest peacefully is protected, and trespass remains a civil rather than a criminal offence, it is worth knowing that universities can take pre-emptive action in order to prevent a protest from getting out of hand; or in certain circumstances from taking place at all.

To reduce the risk of any pre-planned protests escalating in scope and seriousness, universities should seek to engage with representatives from elected student bodies or the protest groups themselves.  This can often result in an agreed form of protest being established beforehand which allows students the opportunity to exercise their right to protest peacefully, while minimising disruption to the running of the university.

Contacting students in the run up to planned protest action confirming any pre-agreed arrangements would also assist – not only in demonstrating the university’s respect of the right to protest peacefully, but also in publicising boundaries to those students who wish to become involved.

If it is not possible to engage with all elements (and causing maximum disruption may well be a goal for some!), then it is sensible to keep a close eye on the internet and social networking sites for advanced warning of plans to conduct the protest outside the scope of any action agreed beforehand. In particular plans to occupy residential property, or threaten individuals should be noted, as this could be sufficient to provide grounds for a pre-emptive injunction to prevent the action from taking place at all.

Martin Edwards
Partner and Head of Real Estate Disputes
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
DD: 0800 763 1340
M:  07909 925945
F: 0800 763 1740
International DD: +44 870 763 1332

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