Occupy London activists are currently involved in two ongoing legal processes.
One is focussed on the main St Paul’s occupation and a second concerns the Bank of Ideas—a disused UBS bank behind Liverpool Street station.
The Bank of Ideas protesters went into occupation on the morning of 18 November. That evening, the owners of the building (Sun Street, a subsidiary of UBS) obtained a possession order requiring the occupiers to leave.
The following day, the demonstrators went back to court, seeking to have the possession order set aside.
Over the next two months this legal battle has made its way relatively slowly through the courts.
The central difficulty faced by UBS was that they obtained the possession order without a proper trial.
The Bank of Ideas protesters were told about the hearing at which possession was granted with just 45 minutes’ notice. They were not told where to go or how to take part in the hearing.
The High Court eventually upheld the possession order, and made a series of criticisms of the way in which it had been obtained.
The judge gave the demonstrators time to appeal. This inconvenienced UBS, who (their lawyers told the court) had booked a “slot” with the police to carry out the eviction.
The Court of Appeal two weeks later granted permission to appeal. The basis on which permission was granted is that for centuries it has been law that a property owner should not be dispossessed without even a minimal hearing.
While trespassers fit awkwardly into this picture, justice itself requires that important decisions are taken only at a fair hearing.
So it is important for capitalism to have a legal system that looks fair. This is of greater importance than upholding the property rights even of a prominent business such as UBS.
Permission having been granted, the Bank of Ideas occupiers decided to end their protest at the end of January. The appeal has been vacated and they will leave the UBS building at a time of their own choice.
The situation at St Paul’s is different. Because of the tensions within the Church of England, no application was made for a possession order until the occupiers had been there for several weeks.
The City of London Corporation (and the court) accepted in principle that the St Paul’s protesters were bona fide demonstrators. They also accepted that they had a right (protected in article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights) to free expression. This gave them the right to protest outside St Paul’s for a limited time.
The St Paul’s case was only determined after a five-day hearing. The judge then took several weeks to write up his decision.
The judge held that the demonstrators obstructed the highway, disturbed Christians worshiping at the cathedral, congested the highway, caused crime in the area, obstructed access to fire services, and needed (but did not have) planning permission.
The judge accepted that demonstrators had a right to gather on the highway. But he added that this right only extended so far as to protect limited demonstrations—not occupations taking the form of protest camps.
Occupy London has until 27 January to seek an appeal. The most likely outcome—unfortunately—is that permission will be refused.
As so often happens in the legal system, the appearance of a lengthy and fair trial is just a prelude to a final decision firmly in capital’s favour.
The demonstrators’ legal teams have won certain battles along the way—but the end result will be that the courts supervise both occupiers’ ultimate eviction.
We do not know yet the extent to which the police or bailiffs will be involved. But, as happened last year at Dale Farm, the end game may yet be a thoroughly nasty procedure.