I helped Audrey White, 59 receive an undisclosed amount in compensation and a formal apology from Greater Manchester Police after she had a Gordon Brown face mask forcibly removed by officers during an anti-war protest in September 2008. I argued that the police had assaulted Mrs. White and unlawfully breached her right to freedom of expression. The police initially rejected Mrs. White’s complaint but were forced to apologise and pay compensation.
Mrs. White is an exceptional businesswoman who has travelled all over the world. Now retired and living in Liverpool, she has dedicated the last 9 years of her life to campaigning against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking a prominent role in the Stop the War coalition.
On 20 September 2008 she attended a protest at the Labour Party conference, where she was also invited to meet politicians as part of a delegation.
To get press attention, she had a banner-sized Bank of England mock cheque made up payable to the ‘Oil Companies and Arms Industry for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq- the sum of 12 billion pounds, the blood of one million Iraqis and the deaths of 300 British soldiers’ signed by Gordon Brown. She also wore a rubber Gordon Brown facemask which she later shared with others. The publicity stunt was well received, with Mrs. White appearing at the front of the protest.
During the course of the protest, she passed the mask around to others, including her brother Mark Holt. The protest was good natured, and as Mrs. White was familiar with many of the protesters and held a senior position, she wore a fluorescent bib and acted as a ‘steward’.
Some hours later, near the end of the protest, Audrey White was suddenly approached by a female police officer and ordered to remove the Gordon Brown mask she was wearing. She was not told why and declined to do so. The officer then forcibly removed the mask with help from another colleague, dragging Audrey White to the ground.
Mrs. White, who suffers from low bone density, injured her neck and back in the public assault. She was in pain, upset and humiliated. The police confiscated the mask, but she was not arrested.
She filed a police complaint about her treatment to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who referred her to Greater Manchester Police. They said their action was reasonable, necessary and proportionate.
Feeling that she had been treated unfairly, Audrey White instructed me to pursue her civil action against the police.
Greater Manchester Police initially denied that they had done anything wrong. They argued that they were exercising a power to remove disguises under s.60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. This is intended to prevent people from hiding their identity.
I used legal powers of disclosure to obtain copies of the police officers’ notebooks. In those I identified inconsistencies, the most crucial of which was that the police officers claimed to be using their powers to remove Mrs. White’s mask, which was considered a disguise, to reveal her identity. However, they did not state that they believed that the mask was a disguise for that purpose.
Mrs. White and others had been wearing the mask all day without challenge from the police, she was known to them as a prominent member of the protest who was acting as a steward, and she was part of a senior delegation who met with politicians. It was also obvious that the mask was being worn in a peaceful protest for political effect.
‘There was no reason for the female police officers concerned to believe that she was attempting to conceal her identity. Consequently, it was unlawful to remove the mask using such unnecessary force. In doing so this amounted to police assault and breached her right to freedom of expression.
I was determined to pursue Audrey White’s claim from the beginning. Over the past few years there has been a steady erosion of our civil liberties. Matters are made worse when the police go over and beyond the extensive powers they now have. We must all fight to preserve and maintain our fundamental right to freedom of expression of opinion.
Mrs. White received a formal written apology from the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, an undisclosed amount in compensation and her full legal costs.
Press coverage of this police misconduct case