An all star line-up of the human rights world adorned the 4th Annual Justice Student Human Human Rights Conference this weekend. This year’s topic was freedom of expression and protest, both highly topical given the recent student protests, coupled with the recent Wikileaks cases.
First up was Helena Kennedy QC, recently appointed onto the Coalition’s panel examining the Human Rights Act. She gave an impassioned defence of Human Rights (as one would expect), as well as some interesting insights into how she felt the act could be improved.
In her opinion it is Euro-scepticism that has fuelled discontent with the European Court of Human Rights, coupled with a failure to communicate the attraction of human rights. We hear the stories of terrorist’s utilising the act, but rarely the impacts of Article 8 (Right to family and private life). A definite highlight of her address was an anecdote about standing up to a judge who had been rude to her in front of a jury. (“What can he do to me? I’m old enough to be most the juries mother, and I sit in the House of Lords!”).
Later in the day, after some excellent ‘break out sessions’ on the European Court’s case law concerning freedom of expression, religion and protest, the most contentious of the day’s speakers took to the stage. Mark Stephens, for those that do not know him, is the outspoken solicitor representing Julian Assange. His slot took the format of an interview by the director of JUSTICE, Roger Smith.
Surprisingly little time was actually spent on the Assange case, the main focus of the interview was Stephen’s background and early cases; from his early years working primarily for musicians and managers (his father’s lodger was the manager of Pink Floyd!) to setting up his own practice to represent artists on a £20 a year subscription for unlimited legal advice. He had some excellent stories, including of a client who refused to pay for anything, but rather would draw imitation notes and ‘trade’ them for goods. Unsurprisingly The Treasury were not too happy about this and pressed charges, leading to a tongue in cheek defence before the Old Bailey, where the jury were asked whether producing large canvas bank notes could really constitute forgery? To everyone’s surprise, including the judge, he got off.
Mark Stephens gave the impression of genuinely caring about freedom of expression and the right to free speech, but also, to be honest, thoroughly enjoyed name dropping his famous client list and getting as close to breaking an injunction as Rodger Smith would let him.
The understated highlights of the day for me, were Louise Christian and Sarah McSherry, both partners at Christian Khan Solicitors. Specialising in actions against the police, they have been acting on behalf of protestors after the recent student demonstrations. In particular the case of Alfie Meadows. Because of an on-going Independent Police Complaints Committee investigation they were unable to talk about that case, but did give a fascinating talk about the case of Austin v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis  UKHL 5.
That case concerned a legal challenge to the use of kettling, where protestors are cordoned in by police and not allowed to leave. At first instance it was found that the containment of protestors was Article 5 compliant (Right to liberty and security of person). On appeal the Court of Appeal went so far as to argue Article 5 was not even engaged, which was affirmed by the House of Lords. Now that all domestic jurisdiction has been exhausted the case is in line to be heard by the European Court.
All in all a fascinating day.
Thanks to Simon Crowther for this round-up of the JUSTICE Student Human Rights Network Conference 2011. The event took place on Saturday 19th March at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London. Simon is currently on the GDL course at The City Law School and has written for the Guardian previously.