The right to participate in a peaceful public rally or political protest is, quite rightly, one of the most cherished hallmarks of a liberal democratic society, and it is quite proper that the right to public assembly be preserved from encroachment by heavy-handed agents of the state who either do not know what the law is, or who are abusing their privileged position of law enforcement.
One such victim of heavy handed and unconstitutional policing was my client Sharon Binks who on 19 May 2018 had travelled from the North-East to Manchester in order to participate in a remembrance march for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing which had occurred on 22 May 2017. Sharon was a single mother and grandmother, then aged 48, and was then, as she is now, of entirely good character.
At no point did Sharon engage or attempt to engage in anything which could be remotely described as anti-social or disorderly behaviour, but she was nevertheless assaulted and battered by officers of Greater Manchester Police – principally PC Ben Rigby.
Sharon had been unable to find friends who she was due to meet up with, but did bump into a male acquaintance and with this man and some others made her way peaceably to St Peter’s Square in Manchester. There, the small group that Sharon was with found their route blocked by Police officers who stated that a group conducting a ‘counter protest’ had also congregated in St Peter’s Square.
Sharon had with her at the time a non-alcoholic drink, namely a plastic cup containing lime and soda. Sharon and her companions were approached by the police officers, and Sharon was questioned by an officer as to the contents of her drink, and she allowed the officer to confirm by smell that it contained no alcohol. A peaceful discussion took place between the officers and some of the men whom Sharon had been walking with; no disorder was taking place, and other members of the public were freely coming and going around them.
Sharon then heard an officer giving instructions for “Section 35” notices to be issued, to ‘disperse’ Sharon and her companions from the area.
At this point, Sharon decided that as she was unfamiliar with her surroundings in Manchester and had been unable to find the friends with whom she had originally intended to meet up, she would return to Piccadilly railway station and go home.
However, she was then accosted by PC Rigby who demanded her name and address on the basis that he wanted to issue her with a Section 35 notice.
In response Sharon, who had done nothing wrong, and who could not reasonably have been suspected of having done anything wrong, stated that she was leaving the area in any event. However PC Rigby was insistent that he wanted to issue her with a Section 35 notice and that she must give him her details.
Sharon correctly believed that she had no obligation to give the officer her personal details and therefore declined to do so.
Another officer then approached and requested that Sharon surrender her drink (not withstanding that it was not alcoholic), which she did.
Sharon then attempted to walk away (in order to return to the railway station – in the opposite direction to the ‘counter protest’) only to find PC Rigby taking hold of her by the arm and pulling her backwards.
PC Rigby then further seized hold of Sharon’s wrist and informed her that she was under arrest. He and his colleague then marched her towards a nearby police van, in which she was required to sit.
Sharon, who was understandably shocked and disturbed by what was happening to her, began to record events on her mobile phone. She maintained that there had been no basis for arrest to which PC Rigby replied “I have arrested you for failing to provide your details on request.”
PC Rigby, displaying an arrogant and uncaring attitude, ignored Sharon’s reasonable protests that she had been arrested for doing nothing more than standing on the street, and repeatedly requested Sharon’s surname. When she refused to give it, PC Rigby then suddenly lunged forwards in an attempt to seize Sharon’s mobile phone, thereby interrupting the recording, which then ceased.
When Sharon attempted to stop PC Rigby from taking her phone, PC O’Connell joined his colleague and the two officers brutally handcuffed Sharon behind her back. During this process, PC Rigby punched Sharon twice in the back with his clenched fist – an act of unjustified aggression which would constitute criminal behaviour if perpetrated by a member of the public, but which when perpetrated by police officers is often disguised behind the euphemism of “distraction strikes” (as indeed PC Rigby maintained was the case here).
The force used by the two officers against Sharon caused her to scream out in distress. It is notable that when PC O’Connell then exited the van, the scene outside was entirely peaceful. The only ‘anti-social behaviour’ was that which had been perpetrated against a helpless woman in the back of the Police van by the two male officers.
Watch some video footage the incident here:
Sharon was then removed to a transport vehicle where she was searched and told that she was now further under arrest for allegedly assaulting PCs Rigby and O’Connell – which was in fact the reverse of the truth and a most outrageous falsehood, but which is in my experience a sadly common tactic of officers who know or suspect that they have in fact committed an assault upon a member of the public.
Due to the extreme tightness of the handcuffs, Sharon’s wrists started bleeding, which led to the handcuffs being removed, and she was transported to a police station where her detention was authorised and she was humiliatingly required to provide fingerprints and a DNA sample and to be photographed. Sharon was so distressed by what was happening to her that she suffered a panic attack whilst in the police cell, shaking uncontrollably and having difficulty breathing. She was still shaking when a solicitor attended upon her.
Sharon was interviewed under caution following which she was charged with assaulting both PC Rigby and PC O’Connell in the execution of their duty.
As an innocent person of entirely good character it was extremely distressing for Sharon to face these false charges, which she fully believed to arise from police manipulation and lies, but she had to live with them hanging over her head until her first appearance before the Magistrates court on 26 June 2018, when she discovered that, only the night before, the Crown Prosecution Service had discontinued the proceedings due to lack of evidence.
Sharon subsequently made a formal Police complaint, which was investigated by GMP’s Professional Standards Department and, in due course, as happens with the majority of even meritorious complaints, rejected by them.
Fortunately, that was not the end of the matter, as Sharon approached me in order to pursue a claim for infringement of her civil rights against GMP.
Section 35 of the Anti –Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced what are commonly known as “Dispersal Orders”. These Section 35 Orders may only be issued provided an authorisation has first been granted under Section 34 of the same Act by a senior police officer. Furthermore and very importantly –
· Directions given under Section 35 Orders do not require a person to provide their details on request, contrary to PC Rigby’s asserted belief; and
· No offence is committed where a person simply fails to provide details for the purposes of a Section 35 Notice.
The Section 34 authority had been given by Superintendent Chris Hall to empower officers to disperse anyone within a designated zone of the city centre, for the alleged purpose of averting disorder between two ‘rival’ protest groups, who were both otherwise lawfully present in the city centre.
A dispersal authority takes effect when the officer issues to any person in the designated locality a notice entitled ‘Direction To Leave’.
There is no requirement in law for the recipient of such a notice to have to provide their name, address or personal details before or when the notice is issued to them.
For PC Rigby to arrest Sharon for a failure to provide her personal details was therefore entirely unlawful under the provisions of Section 35 of the 2014 Act.
PC Rigby subsequently sought to rely upon Section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 which does require a person to provide their name and address to a police constable “If a constable in uniform has reason to believe that a person has been acting or is acting in an anti-social manner……”
However, the case which I and Sharon’s barrister Nick Stanage successfully argued at the trial of her case was that the provisions of Section 50 did not apply in this situation, as Sharon could not be described as acting in an anti-social manner – she had done nothing other than to stand and talk (in a reasonable and polite manner) in the street whilst holding a non-alcoholic drink, and indeed she had then attempted to walk away from St Peter’s Square (not towards any protest) immediately before PC Rigby grabbed hold of her.
It was also notable that when PC Rigby first arrested Sharon he did not, as the law requires, explain the grounds for her arrest, and did not do so at all until she was in the police van when he stated “I have arrested you for failing to provide your details upon request.”
As explained above, given that Sharon was not, and could not reasonably have presumed to have been, committing any anti-social activity at the time of her arrest the assertion that she could be arrested for failing to provide her details can only have arisen as a result of a misunderstanding (whether deliberate or not) by PC Rigby of Section 35 powers and a confusion of those powers with the separate powers granted by Section 50 of the PRA 2002.
The crucial distinction is that Section 35 is a ‘pre-emptive’ power to disperse, whereas Section 50 requires anti-social behaviour (causing harassment, alarm or distress to any person) to have already been committed; it cannot be used in ‘anticipation’ of anti-social behaviour by a person.
I issued court proceedings on behalf of Sharon, which were strenuously contested by Greater Manchester Police and the matter proceeded to a three-day trial at Manchester County Court in July 2021 where, after incisive and compelling advocacy from Mr Stanage, Her Honour Judge Evans ultimately gave judgment in Sharon’s favour.
Under rigorous cross examination by Sharon’s barrister, PC Rigby admitted –
· Sharon was not harassing or distressing anyone;
· Her actions in walking down the street in the company of other protesters were NOT enough to arrest her, but only to issue a Section 35 notice;
· The rival protest group were so far away from where PC Rigby was at the time, that he couldn’t actually see them.
Judge Evans went on to quite correctly identify that the evidence did not suggest that PC Rigby (or his superiors) believed that Sharon had or might have already engaged in anti-social behaviour, and the written statement PC Rigby subsequently made to attempt to justify Sharon’s arrest did not show any appreciation that theoretical ‘future’ anti-social behaviour is not a justification for a Section 50 demand for details.
The Judge’s ultimate conclusion was that PC Rigby had applied a Section 35 test to the exercise of Section 50 powers and had thereby unlawfully arrested Sharon, who was not committing any anti-social behaviour. Sharon was therefore successful in her claims for both false imprisonment and assault and battery.
The Judge also found that PC Rigby was “mistaken and ignorant” as to what powers he had under Section 35 and Section 50 of the respective Acts, but that in her opinion he did not act maliciously or take a deliberate decision to effect a wrongful arrest.
As the Judge quite rightly stated however, it is not reasonable for a police constable to be mistaken as to the law.
It is my opinion that the consequences of such ‘mistakes’ – often borne out of the arrogance of power, and for which apology is very rarely offered by the police (and still has not been in this case) – are extremely harmful to the health of a liberal and democratic society, tending at once to cause real damage to innocent peoples’ lives, to curtail the liberty of society as a whole (by the ‘chipping away’ of long established rights), and to engender public mistrust in the institution of policing.
HHJ Evans ultimately made a significant award of damages in Sharon’s favour, including aggravated damages to reflect the distressing circumstances of this arrest of a woman of good character, which took place in public by an ignorant and high-handed officer who through that ignorance (or I might say arrogance) over-rode Sharon’s exercise of her lawful right not to have to give her personal details to the police, by means of both an unlawful arrest and battery.
Whether the police will learn lessons from this verdict, in terms of future policing of public protests and the education of their officers in the understanding and application of their powers remains to be seen, although my suspicion is that in PC Rigby’s case the problem arose from one of mindset rather than a lack of technical knowledge of the law i.e. he is one of the significant number of police officers who take great, and often aggressive, umbrage at their self-perceived authority/ability to dispense orders to the public being ‘flouted’ and he reacted accordingly in an ill-judged and intemperate manner, grabbing hold of Sharon and unlawfully arresting her.
Rather than with PC Rigby however, I would like my final words on this case to be about Sharon herself. She showed bravery and determination in bringing her case, despite having been subject to the trauma of first a criminal prosecution, and then the rejection of her legitimate complaint by Greater Manchester Police PSD. Sharon had to deal with the police continuing to contest her claim and had ultimately to sit through a three-day trial, during which she was extensively cross examined by the police barrister, and suffered numerous baseless attacks on her character and conduct. Sharon was, in my opinion, quite right to declare PC Rigby and PC O’Connell ‘bullies’ when they assaulted her; and she had the great courage to stand up to those bullies, and the institution which protected them.
Ultimately, just over three years after her unlawful arrest, Sharon was able to hear the court uphold her rights and declare judgment in her favour. I applaud her strength and spirit in seeing this case through to the end for the benefit of all concerned – including the officers of Greater Manchester Police and those members of the public who will in future come into contact with them in similar situations.