When is a restriction on movement a deprivation of liberty?
In Austin v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolice  UKHL 5 (28 January 2009) crowd control during a May day demonstration in London was the setting for an argument that confinement of the appellants within a police designated zone at Oxford Circus for several hours was a breach of their art 5 ECHR right to "liberty and security of the person".
Lord Hope delivered the leading opinion, with which the other Law Lords agreed. Whether particular facts amount to a restriction of movement, or to a breach of the right to liberty, is a matter of degree and intensity (21) to which a balancing of conflicting interests applies (27), taking a pragmatic approach which requires good faith and proportionality on the part of the authorities so as to avoid arbitrariness (34).
Some slight – and probably inconsequential - difference in emphasis occurred in the opinions concerning the role of the purpose that the authorities had for restricting the appellants' movement. Lord Hope noted that purpose had no separate role to play in the balancing exercise other than as part of this requirement for good faith. Lord Walker emphasised (43) that caution was needed as to the role of purpose, as good intentions couldn't make up for a deficiency in justification for confinement (44), but the focus should be on what the police were doing (47). Lord Scott said that purpose was a high ranking circumstance (39), and Lord Neuberger noted that it would be very different if the police had been detaining the crowd in order to punish them for the disorder that had occurred (63).
There is a small cause for concern over an aspect of this case. The right to liberty was called an "absolute" right (Lord Hope at 2, 15, 18; Lord Walker at 42). That is not a term of art in the Convention. Strictly speaking, the right to liberty is unqualified (except for the qualifications expressed in particular specified situations) but is subject to derogation in accordance with art 15. While the right to liberty can be called a fundamental right of the first rank (Lord Hope at 27), does that necessarily mean that all such fundamental rights of the first rank are vulnerable to qualification by means of balancing? Most people, I suspect, would not accept that the right to a fair trial can be subject to qualification by balancing.
Unfortunately, Lord Hope refers to the right to a fair trial at 31, quoting from para 53 of O'Halloran and Francis v United Kingdom  ECHR 21. This dictum points out that the facts of a case must be considered in determining whether a trial was fair (an obvious comment), but the way it is used makes it look as if it asserts that fairness changes with the circumstances. The comment was made in the course of rejecting an argument that violation of the right to silence amounted to breach of the right to a fair trial, and was plainly correct: violation of the right to silence would normally be sufficient grounds to rule an incriminating statement inadmissible. But in O'Halloran and Francis the evidence had been correctly ruled admissible; nevertheless, there were no fair trial concerns in the particular circumstances.
So, when Lord Hope refers (34) to a pragmatic balancing of fundamental rights which are not subject to restriction or limitation in the Convention, he should not, I suggest, be taken to include the right to a fair trial (except where derogation applies), but his comments correctly refer to other fundamental rights. The other Law Lords, while agreeing with Lord Hope, did not comment on the fair trial point.
I should add that the model described in Austin does not require a restriction of the right to liberty. The so-called balancing is a means of determining whether the restriction on freedom of movement is justified; if it isn’t, then there has been a breach of the right to liberty. It is not a question of restricting the right to liberty to accommodate a justified restriction on the right to freedom of movement. Analogous reasoning could make the reference to trial fairness seem acceptable: there is no question of restricting the right to a fair trial to accommodate a justified restriction on the conduct of the defence; pragmatic balancing may be applied to determine whether a restriction on the way the defence is conducted is justified, and if it is there is no breach of the right to a fair trial. The difficulty with this model is that it converts questions about the rights to liberty or a fair trial into questions about the justifications of restrictions on movement or procedure. The model omits consideration of the content of the rights to liberty or a fair trial. But if those rights warrant being called absolute it would be appropriate to examine what they mean. A justified limitation of one right (to movement or to procedural steps) does not mean that the other (liberty or a fair trial) is not infringed. I have recently referred to the House of Lords decision in R v H (see blog for 20 January 2009). In that case there is a clear separation between these questions: if procedural limitations (on disclosure) are justified, that does not automatically mean that the ensuing trial will be fair.
Austin confirms what must surely be uncontroversial: the right to liberty does not mean a right to resist reasonable measures by the police to prevent damage to property or injury to people. The real controversy was over the reasonableness of the measures taken by the police in this case.