Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kettling and tracking

A lecture on Thursday evening by Professor Andrew Ashworth of Oxford reminded me to mention Austin v United Kingdom [2012] ECHR 459 (15 March 2012). This concerns the procedure of "kettling" people by detaining (oops – begging the question there) them when civil unrest breaks out and the police need to maintain order. In London thousands of people where kettled for about 6 hours without food, drink, toilet facilities, and with only room to stand or sit on the pavement. Was this a breach of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Article 5 gives everyone the right to liberty and security of the person, and only permits deprivation of liberty in six specified circumstances (see para 38 of the majority judgment). The government argued that either kettling was not a deprivation of liberty, or, if it was, it was justified by Article 5 as a detention in furtherance of the police's obligation to preserve the peace, or as a detention reasonably necessary to prevent offending or flight of offenders.

The majority interpreted the Convention as a "living instrument" [53] and held that Article 5 cannot be interpreted so as to make it impracticable for the police to fulfil their duties of maintaining order and protecting the public [56]. Further (or alternatively) the context of the kettling must be considered because unavoidable restrictions on movement arising from circumstances beyond the control of the authorities and which are necessary to avert a real risk of serious injury or damage and which are kept to the minimum required for that purpose are not "deprivations of liberty" within the meaning of that article [59], [60].

On the facts here the majority held that the kettling was reasonable and did not amount to a deprivation of liberty within the meaning of Article 5.

The 3 minority judges considered that there had been a deprivation of liberty. They questioned the proposition that if a restrictive measure was necessary for a legitimate public-interest purpose it did not amount to a deprivation of liberty. The reason for the deprivation of liberty should not be relevant to whether it was a deprivation of liberty. The reason is only relevant to whether the deprivation of liberty was justified under Article 5. Also, Article 5 does not warrant a distinction between deprivations of liberty arising from public order considerations and other deprivations of liberty, as the Grand Chamber had held in A v United Kingdom [2009] ECHR 301 (19 February 2009 and noted here 22 February 2009). See also Jendrowiak v Germany ECHR 14 April 2011. The minority also pointed out that the majority were ignoring another decision of the court: Gillan and Quinton v United Kingdom [2010] ECHR 28 (12 January 2010).

My assessment: Basically, the court's jurisprudence follows pragmatism rather than precedent. There is nothing wrong with pragmatic balancing of the values that underlie competing rights, but a lot of guess work is involved. No information was considered concerning the occurrence in groups of people of the kettled size of lost opportunities, risks to health and financial costs, nor was there any consideration of how those impacts should be measured for comparison with the advantages of reducing the costs of rioting. The majority judgment leaves us with the impression that a fuzzy sort of judicial comfortableness was the criterion, with emphasis on the police having to act in the longer-term interests of everyone. That begs the question of there having been no alternative police response.

Another case mentioned by the Vinerian Professor is United States v Jones
2011 USSC No 10-1259 (23 January 2012). This decided that the covert placing of a GPS tracking device on a car was a trespass and information subsequently gathered about the suspects' movements was unlawful search in breach of the Fourth Amendment. Thus the trespass test continues to be relevant notwithstanding the more recent common law development of the reasonable expectation of privacy test. This case did not require consideration of whether the search was reasonable because that argument was not raised in the courts below. A useful commentary by Atli Stannard on the comparative law can be found at .