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Human rights: European court to rule on 'kettling' tactics

The European Court of Human Rights is set to rule tomorrow on a case concerning the police tactic of kettling.

The case has been brought by four protesters who were penned-in by the Metropolitan Police during a May Day march in 2001.

In what is widely considered the leading case on the subject of police crowd-control techniques, seventeen judges sitting in the grand chamber of the court will rule on whether the tactic breached protesters' rights to liberty under article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case has taken more than ten years to come before the European Court.

The European Court of Human Rights hears referrals from national courts on points of law relating to the European Convention on Human Rights. This case concerns a potential breach of the right to liberty, after police erected a cordon to contain May Day protestors at Oxford Circus in 2001. The group were detained against their will for seven hours without access to food, water or toilets.

Senior police have argued that kettling is an essential tool for dealing with large and potentially violent crowds. The tactic allows the police to use non-combative measures to divide and contain groups until situations have defused. If the ruling should go against the Met, it will force a serious rethink of crowd-control strategies before the Olympics this summer.

The common law allows the police to enclose crowds in pens when they believe that doing so is the only reasonable way to prevent an imminent breach of the peace. However, opponents argue that kettling infringes the human rights of protestors and amounts to mass detention. Some experts have contested that the tactic can actually serve to further inflame crowds and encourage confrontation.

Kat Craig, of Christian Khan solicitors, is representing one of the protestors, Lois Austin. She has represented her throughout her ten-year legal battle for compensation from the Met.

"This case could determine, once and for all, whether corralling people into police pens and coercively holding them for hours amounts to an unlawful deprivation of liberty," said her solicitor.

Kettling has become more frequent in recent years. The use of kettling in this case was deemed lawful by law lords who said that it was a necessary tactic used on the day to control elements of the crowd that had been causing violence.

However, the judges also emphasised that the tactic must be used in good faith. In recent incidents, police have provided temporary toilets and bottles of water to keep crowds safe.

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