There follows a guest post by Andrew Rootsey, the solicitor acting for Debbie Hicks, an anti-lockdown protestor. Debbie is hoping to appeal two recent conviction to the High Court, but needs to raise £10,000 to do so. You can find her DonorBox fundraiser here.
As you may recall, we secured Debbie’s acquittal at Cheltenham Magistrates Court on the December 20th 2021 for offences relating to organising/being involved in organising a gathering of more than 30 people during a period of national lockdown or alternatively for participating in the gathering.
The relevant gathering was a protest held in Stratford Park in Stroud in November 2020 against the restrictions imposed on the British public under the Coronavirus Regulations. The protest was called the ‘Freedom Rally’ and was attended by more than 50 people.
The Stroud ‘Freedom Rally’ was held two days into the second national lockdown and therefore at the time it was illegal to organise a gathering of more than 30 people or to meet in groups of more than two people. A conviction would have left her liable for a £10,000 fine.
Ms. Hicks was acquitted of both offences after the court accepted our argument that her arrest and prosecution was a disproportionate interference with her human rights – namely the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, given that she was engaging in a legitimate protest.
The court found that Ms. Hicks had organised the ‘Freedom Rally’ and had breached the Coronavirus Regulations in force at the time by doing so. However, she had a reasonable excuse because she was attending a legitimate, peaceful and well-organised protest. The officers on the ground at the protest had been labouring under a misapprehension of the law – that protesting was not lawful under the Regulations – and were essentially imposing a blanket ban on protesting. Therefore, their actions in arresting her were not rational or proportionate.
In complete contrast – and a perfect example of how this contentious piece of legislation is flawed and open to misinterpretation – on the November 16th 2021 the City of London Magistrates Court convicted Debbie of breaching similar coronavirus regulations by protesting in Hyde Park against the imposition of lockdown restrictions during the pandemic. The District Judge in this case found that Debbie did not have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for protesting and found that the interference with her Human Rights was proportionate. Debbie was convicted and sentenced to a financial penalty.
The case raises important issues on freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the chilling of the right to protest. We wish to appeal this case to the High Court in order for the High Court to settle the important questions of law raised.
A fundamental consideration for the High Court is the ambiguity of the right to protest during the Coronavirus pandemic during periods of national lockdown and the operation of the ‘reasonable excuse’ jurisdiction in this regard.
The Government has made it clear, as have the courts, including in Debbie’s case before the Cheltenham Magistrates Court, that protesting during the Coronavirus pandemic was never illegal. Yet that was not always clear from the Coronavirus regulations nor was it the understanding of most police officers. How the reasonable excuse defence is to operate in these circumstances requires clarity and we are confident that the High Court will settle the issue in our favour and set a precedent for future cases and those seeking to appeal against their own convictions.
Debbie Hicks is probably best known for filming within the Gloucester Royal Hospital in December 2020 during Tier 3 restrictions. Debbie did so, exercising her freedom of expression, in order to highlight that Government restrictions were having a devastating effect upon access to healthcare across the board and to investigate mainstream media reports that hospitals were overflowing with patients.
Despite her efforts to avoid confrontation, she was challenged at the hospital by two employees. During the exchange, which lasted less than a minute, Debbie did not film the staff members. She explained the purpose of her visit and her views as to the provision of NHS services during lockdown. Staff members took offence at her comments and subsequently made a complaint to the police. Debbie immediately left the hospital voluntarily and was subsequently arrested at her home in front of her family and charged with using abusive, threatening or disorderly words or behaviour.
Debbie was not at the hospital deliberately seeking an encounter with staff. She has in the past been a vociferous supporter of the NHS and has supported NHS staff in respect of vaccine mandates.
In connection with this episode, Debbie stood trial for an offence under Section 5 of Public Order Act on January 6th 2022 and having adjourned the case in order to hand down his judgement the District Judge convicted Debbie of a S5 Public Order Act offence on January 19th 2022 at Cirencester Magistrates Court.
We wish to appeal this conviction as well and ask that the High Court settle this case on the basis that the District Judge was wrong in law to convict Debbie of this offence. We are firmly of the view that the Prosecution case simply did not cross the threshold of what constitutes abusive, threatening or disorderly words or behaviour. The District Judge’s analysis was flawed and did not properly interpret Supreme Court authorities nor give appropriate weight to Debbie’s rights of freedom of expression and assembly as enshrined in the European Convention for Human Rights, nor give appropriate weight to the political nature of Debbie’s views when the case law makes clear political freedom of expression should be given special protection.
Debbie is trying to raise £10,000 to take both cases to the High Court. She hopes that those who continue to believe in freedom of speech and the the right to protest will continue to support her. Our hope is that if we can get these convictions overturned, it will set a legal precedent for those convicted of similar offences and who may face prosecution in the future.
Debbie needs to raise funds in order to pay her legal costs and any help is hugely appreciated. Her fundraiser can be found here.
Andrew Rootsey is a solicitor at Murray Hughman.