Activist Rights

Organising Legal Support

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When planning any political action or protest, whether it is a full-scale blockade of a military base or a street stall, consider and plan for police responses or legal consequences.

Well planned and effective activist legal support can not only be crucial in:
– helping a campaign withstand legal or political repression, and
– opening up greater political space for the wider movement and for activists in the future.

Asserting and defending our legal rights in one campaign helps other activists and campaigns.

The law can be intimidating. It is essential that people organising protest actions learn about relevant laws early in the organising process.

On this page:

  • Positive group culture
  • Media and documentation
  • Legal Observer Teams
  • Planning Support and Solidarity
  • Legal Trainings
  • Public Forums
  • Legal Implications
  • Liaise with authorities
  • Provide legal information

Positive group culture

When activist groups and communities actively build a culture of providing legal information, support and solidarity, individual activists and groups/collectives will be better supported to undertake direct actions (which may involve civil disobedience or breaking the law).

For example, if it becomes the norm that:-

  • people know their legal rights,
  • people know not to talk to the police or pass on information which might endanger themselves or other to the police,
  • groups and collectives adopt strong ‘security culture’ protocols,
  • it becomes standard to write a legal phone number in permanent marker on peoples’ arms prior to a protest, and
  • people attending a protest would be prepared to act as a legal observers –

the stronger and better collective support and solidarity can be.

Case Study

In 2010 ‘Switch off Hazelwood, Switch on Renewables’ organised a day of protest outside the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria’s la Trobe Valley.

A Legal Support Team coordinated various pre-protest events including direct action trainings, a legal briefing, a police liaison meeting, and created a handout on new laws targeting ‘critical public infrastructure’ which increased penalties for protests at coal fired power stations.

On the day of the protests the Legal Support Team set up a stall, handed out legal information, made public announcements about legal information, and were available to answer peoples’ questions.

In the end there were no arrests, no police violence at the protest, and no ongoing need for legal support.

However, many activists who attended stressed how glad they were that a legal support team was there and available. They said it made them feel more able to take part in the protest action.

Having a legal support team present worked to distribute legal information, inform people about their rights, and recognised the need for legal support and for solidarity in activist movements.

Media and Documentation

Photo and video coverage of the action can help to deter police violence and provide valuable evidence later.

Remember that footage you record can be evidence that cuts both ways. If accurate, the footage will reflect the conduct of all participants at an action, e.g. police, activists, violent and nonviolent.

Your photos of an action, especially when distributed strategically on the Internet and social media can provide a useful counterpoint representation of the protest to some of the biased reporting that is common in the mainstream press.

Also see: Surveillance of activists; Political surveillance; Social media

Be aware of what is and isn’t appropriate to document through video or photo. For example, it is generally not appropriate to photograph a meeting between activists unless you have explicit consent.

If activist are undertaking actions with which they do not necessarily want to be linked or identified it is also inappropriate to take photos.

Think about what the purposes of the photographs you are taking are.

For example, if your aim is to document police violence or harassment (if there is any) make sure you focus on that.

You may want to focus on taking photos of police attending the protest who are not wearing proper identification.

Documentation aims might include:
– deterring police brutality;
– to take pictures of the licence plates that you want to record;
– to take pictures of the police, both plain clothes and uniformed so they can be identified later (if there is misconduct or brutality)
– to take pictures of those who seem to be provocateurs;
– to take pictures of any “incident”, including arrests.

These can be useful for media and in court. Stand back and get shots of the whole area and general layout. This helps in court too.

You can take any person’s picture without their permission. The camera just has to be visible. The camera is a powerful weapon. At rallies and demonstrations they are essential.

But note that police can act violently in order to seize cameras or tape. Violent assaults on photographers or independent media by police do happen.

Plan to prevent police from seizing your camera, disk or tape. If you have a useful image, keep it safe from police and make it available to those involved in the Legal Support Team.

However, when there are many cameras it is possible to get pictures of these “accidents” where cameras are destroyed or of the police officer posing his palm for a photograph.

Preserving the photographic evidence for the court is critical. The main problem is that of “continuity”. In the court it is necessary to show a continuous chain of possession of the film, negatives and prints. This must be done to counter any suggestion that these items have been tampered with.

It is useful to develop a relationship with people in independent media so that you can have access to the film if needed. Note that police may also have camera units present. Make sure people in the action know that they will be filmed so they don’t mistake an independent media person or legal observer for a police camera operator.

Note that you will generally have to call to court the person who took the image if you want to use it as evidence.

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Legal Observer Team

Legal or human rights observers are:

  • an independent third party,
  • who observe police behaviour,
  • with the aim to keep police accountable for their actions.

Legal observers can:

  • document police behaviour and tactics at protests,
  • hand out legal information,
  • hand out legal support phone numbers,
  • be a visible presence,
  • write incident reports describing police violence and misbehaviour, and
  • compile reports after the event.

As observers, they are better able to objectively and independently describe events.

Legal Observer Teams should aim to widen the political space to take protest action by:

  • monitoring violence and harassment by police and other authorities, and
  • acting in a way that better enables movements to take the actions they want to take.

Legal Observers can be helpful to:

  • create a feeling of safety,
  • allow people to make informed decisions about their actions,
  • and observe police tactics and promote accountability.

If a Legal Observer Team is not possible, arrange for people to video, record and take notes during the action.

Download and use the Arrest Watch Report Forms Located on this website under Support team resources.

Also see the National Lawyers Guild ‘Legal Observer Manual’.

It is arguably inappropriate for Legal Observer Teams who are committed to working in political support and solidarity with protesters to monitor and quasi-police the actions of protestors. The police and the apparatus of the state dedicate plenty of resources to the profiling, surveillance and criminalisation of individuals and movements that work towards progressive social change

It is vital that a Legal Observer Team has discussed and is clear about their role and mandate, especially about whether their role is to monitor the behaviour or police, of protesters of both or of others. A political philosophy to legal support will generally insist that the role of Legal Observers is to monitor the behaviour of the police and that their role is not to police or to monitor protester behaviour in anyway.

Legal Observers are needed to provide handouts on legal information, provide protesters with phone numbers for legal support, track arrests and policing incidents and collate information for ongoing legal support and or arrestee solidarity.

Legal Observers should also encourage protest participants to write an appropriate legal support telephone number (this may be a mobile number activated by the legal Support team for this particular protest, or the number of a supportive criminal law firm or community legal centre).

Even participants who do not intend to get arrested or feel they will not get arrested should be encouraged to do this. There are two main reasons for this – 

Firstly, police responses may be unpredictable and arbitrary and it is not uncommon for people who had no intention of being arrested (even bystanders who were not part of the protest) to be arrested.

Secondly, if some participants have the number written on their hand and others don’t it may cause police attention to be drawn to people with the number on their hand, on the assumption that they intend to engage in more militant or confrontational tactics.

It is useful for Legal Observers to identify themselves as such by wearing signs or distinctive clothing such as fleuro safety vests with ‘Legal Observer’ stencilled on the back. Make sure each Legal Obersver is equipped with a clipboard, relevant arrest tracking sheets, blank paper and pens.

Make sure you have debriefing organised – the role can be very draining, as Legal Observer may be witnesses to police violence, but the role requires them to keep doing. In such situations organising a group debrief to acknowledge how shocking and upsetting some of the things that were witnessed and observed may have been.

Planning Support and Solidarity

A protest or action is not over until the court process and consequences for everyone are finished:

  • the last fine is payed,
  • community work finished,
  • until people are released from custody, or
  • civil actions against authorities are concluded.

Be aware of:

  • the time frames this will involve,
  • the expertise this requires,
  • the financial resources this would take, and
  • planning for this long-term support.

For example, when planning a protest that involves mass disobedience, plan for the fact this is likely to involve significant number of people being charged, going to court and having to pay fines.

As organisers, you should consider if you may need to organise fundraisers (to pay people’s fines or legal fees) early in the planning.

Even if the action is small and involves only a few people, good activist legal support and back up is still important.

Be clear about what legal support your group can and can’t give. Make sure this is explained clearly to the individual activists, groups or movement you are providing support to.

If the action you are planning is large then arrange for a Legal Support Team well in advance.

See also: Set up a Legal Support Team.

Progressive lawyers and activist legal workers should be involved as an integral part of the planning process for protest actions and campaigns.

If there is a chance of community legal centres being utilised at a later date, it may be a good idea to meet with your local centre and inform them of the campaign or action.

Involve legal workers as early as possible, not only after people have been arrested and charged.

If possible, organise a lawyer to be guest speaker at an organisational meeting so that the group as a whole can ask questions. Or a legal training could be organised in the lead-up to the action. See Trainings for activists section. Don’t expect lawyers to do this for free or as a matter of course, and even if they do, don’t expect the advice to continue. However you may be able to negotiate an arrangement that will cost nothing for your group.

From this may arise interest from individual lawyers who may choose to help with the Legal Support Team. However if nothing else this will cover the introductions between the lawyers, legal centres and activists.

A basic knowledge of the legal system can be useful for planning campaigns and actions.

For more information see the DIY Legal Research section.

If you are not sure, a start with this website. When you seek legal advice, attempt to find answers to these questions:

  • Whose jurisdiction is the protest site under?
  • Will the State or Federal police be there?
  • Which police command will be involved?
  • Is the protest site on public or private land?
  • If it is private who is the owner?
  • Is the protest on Commonwealth land?
  • What Acts or legislation are relevant to the action you are planning?
  • Are there local by-laws that may impact?
  • What potential charges could be applied to those involved in the action?
  • What are the maximum and likely penalties for these charges?
  • What is the history of these charges being laid by police at similar actions?
  • What sort of civil litigation is the campaign or organisation vulnerable to?
  • What sort of legal support can be arranged for activists involved?

Once you have all this information it is possible to plan for activist legal support.

Legal Support Teams are organised groups of activists, legal students, legal workers and lawyers who provide a range of activist legal support work before, during and after the action.

It is crucial for a Legal Support Team to define for themselves and be very clear about what their role is. Legal Support may involve numerous facets:

  • Providing legal advice about action options.
  • Running legal information sessions and legal trainings prior to an action (as part of pre-protest direct action trainings or as stand alone events).
  • Operating a legal phone/email for activists to contact the legal support team with questions or if they are in police custody.
    Training, co-ordinating and debriefing Legal Observers to attend the protest.
  • Collating photos/film footage from protests (primarily in order to identify improper police action).
  • Media comments about legal issues arising out of a protest.
    Assistance with pro-active legal strategies to assist a group or movement (ie. Seeking injunctions to allow a protest to go ahead).
    Providing legal advice/information to activists in custody, potentially co-ordinating lawyers for bail applications if necessary.
  • Providing legal representation for people arrested at a protest or providing appropriate referrals to supportive criminal law firms, Victoria Legal Aid or a community legal centre.
    Taking evidence (including statements) from people who experienced or witnessed inappropriate police behaviour at protests.
  • Providing legal advice about possible options available to people if they experienced police violence or harassment, including potentially providing information, advice, referrals or representation in relation to civil actions.

The scope of what a Legal Support Team is able to do depends upon the capacity and the expertise of the group. The demand for legal support also varies depending on the scale of the action (both in terms of people and amount of time involved) and how complex or controversial it is.

Arrange Legal Trainings

Hosting legal workshops or trainings prior to a protest or action is a useful way to empower and upskill activists.

These workshops can work well as a stand-alone event, or as part of a longer direct action training.

Make sure your knowledge of the law is current and up-to-date. Never assume that the law hasn’t changed. Make sure that handouts or information are still current.

You should have clear and well-structured workshop outline. A workshop outline for legal trainings is available on this site Legal training for activists.

Arrange Public Forums

Forums can be a useful way to firstly educate participants about the legal issues relevant to a campaign. They can also work to build links with the legal community and other organisations and individuals who may be able to support your campaign. Additionally, they can be useful to raise awareness about any changes in the law affecting your right to protest and wider issues around freedom of assembly and civil liberties.

If one of the aims of your forum is to get other people involved think about where and when you hold it to make it most accessible. It may be useful to film sections and upload these to your website. If you are aiming to build links make sure you have sign up sheet available for volunteers or supporters to leave their contact details.

Case Study - Switch of Hazelwood and Climate Camp

Prior to Climate Camp the Justice Tracks Collective held two forums titled ‘Lawyers, Protests and the Front Line of Climate Change’ with a lawyer from the Environmental Defender’s Office and an activist from Newcastle. There was one in Sydney and one in Newcastle. The aim of these forums was primarily to build links with people in the legal community and build wider support for Climate Camp.

Prior to the Switch of Hazelwood protest the Legal Support team organised a forum ‘A Stifling Climate’ to talk about recent changes to the law which increased penalties for direct action at ‘critical infrastructure’ in order to deter protest at coal fired power stations. The forum was designed to discuss and demystify the legal changes and also to politicise the stifling of dissent they represented.

Legal Implications

Knowledge is power. Having knowledge of the legal system and the legal implications of particular causes of action can better equip campaigns.

That particular protests options have legal implications should not rule them out.

Decisions about what actions to take or what political strategy to pursue should not only be based on what is legal and what is not legal.

There are many very important and valid reasons why campaigns and activist will choose to pursue strategies and causes of actions that are likely to have legal repercussions.

There is a long and proud history of civil disobedience across the world.

Activists and protest organisers sometimes ask people providing legal support:

“what are we allowed to do?” 
“what actions should we take?”
“what should we do?”

Lawyers and independent Legal Support Teams can’t advise people to break the law or decide what they should (or shouldn’t) do.

Lawyers and Legal Support Teams can provide information about the law and what the possible legal consequences may be.

With this knowledge, activists and protest organisers are the only people who can make these decisions.

Decisions about how, when, and where to protest are political, tactical, and strategic decisions.

Liaise with authorities

If appropriate, you can liaise with authorities.

Many actions depend on high levels of secrecy for their success and prior liaison with police (or local councils) is not possible. If your action relies of secrecy be aware of issues around surveillance and infiltration by police.

Some activists have strong political standpoints about any sort of communication with police (and other authorities, like local councils) because of how police liaison can be manipulated by police to control a protest.

Other activists say that prior police liaison can help to minimise the risks that:

  • police will overreact to an action,
  • police will sue violence, and
  • violent counter protesters will attend or be able to reach the group.

For some activists, prior disclosure is a strategy aimed at creating dilemma situations for the government.

The police liaison role can serve to:

  • present a respectable face to police,
  • build trust to gain important information,
  • gain negotiating time and space, and
  • allow negotiation on minor details of the action without disrupting the entire protest.

Many actions that are publicly promoted, such as marches and rallies, will not be secret and prior police liaison may be undertaken to negotiate details such as:

  • traffic control,
  • sound systems,
  • or where arrested people may be taken.

If you do decide to liaise with police before an action, ensure that you speak with the relevant ‘Operations’ commander.

Always make sure at least two people undertake the role of police liaison in order to minimise the risk of miscommunication and manipulation.

It is not necessary to have a lawyer to do the police liaison but having a lawyer present can sometimes be helpful.

Before deciding to engage with police, it can be worth asking other activists about their experience.

You should take notes during any meetings or conversations with police, including any agreements that have been made. Make sure you are well-informed about your rights before engaging with police.

Guidelines for police liaison

All police liaison should have the authority and permission of the activist group.

Be clear about how much authority you have to speak, negotiate or mediate on behalf of your group and don’t overstep it.

All police liaison should be done in pairs of people – never liaise with police alone.

Police Liaison should speak with the commanding officer and operational commander of the relevant police unit.

This may take some research.

Be aware of public relations officers who have no authority.

Always ask for the operational commander who has direct control over the officers at the protest site.

Prepare what you will say and what information you will or will not provide beforehand. Check with the activist group that all this is okay.

Being courteous and respectful to police can help gain their trust and respect.

Demonstrating and behaving like you expect to be treated with respect, can also help make it a reality.

Be aware of what you can negotiate about and what is non-negotiable (i.e. the position of the banner may be negotiable but the line of people blockading are committed to staying and this is not).

Be aware that police may treat people differently depending on someone’s gender, race, disability, class, appearance, or any other characteristic.

Police may defer to or listen only to white cis-men.

Discuss with your group how you will deal with this if it happens.

Be aware of police promises, bluffs and threats. You may get coerced into abandoning all or part of the action. Check out what the police actually mean and clarify their points if you are unclear.

Make sure all the information, including threats and promises, is communicated accurately and clearly back to the activists.

Write down outcomes from liaison meetings, who was there, discussions. Especially if there are several police liaison meetings prior to a protest it is useful to know what was discussed, decided and agreed to at previous meetings.

Do not be afraid to highlight inappropriate police behaviour, police violence or excessive force, you may be the only people who have access to the commanding officer.

Provide Legal Information

Provide written legal information to participants is critical.

This could be as simple as linking relevant sections of this website onto other sites or Facebook pages about the protest.

You can also print out relevant sections and hand them out to people. Not everyone has internet access.

Sometimes, you may have to make specific information about your protest. Make sure this information is available electronically and in hard copy.

There is a fine line between including enough information to help people understand the legal risks of their actions, and overwhelming people.

Think about how much information is necessary to provide to properly inform and empower people. Consider ways of presenting information that will aid understanding (such as: clear layout, simple language, pictures, minimal text, links to more information)

Case Study
Justice Tracks Collective and Climate Camp

Leading up to Climate Camp we put in a lot of work creating a zine, a small hand-photocopied booklet full of info about preparing for and taking direct action. It contained sections on ‘why take direct action’, common offences relating to protests, preparing for direct action, the arrest process, the court process, and a personal account from someone who had been arrested etc. They deliberately tried to avoid the text-heavy and ‘boring’ format of a lot of legal information, and focused on making the resource accessible, easy to digest and beautiful, by including diagrams and pictures, including a cartoon character P. Bear, as much as possible.

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