Andrew Williams looks at how local authorities can respond when their land or buildings are invaded by groups such as the 'Love Activists'.
I hadn't been struck by a missile before: not, at any rate, on my way out of court and by a scrunched-up Greggs Bakers paper bag. It was hurled at me by an aggrieved protestor after I secured an order requiring the self-styled “Love Activists” to give up possession of the multi-million pound former bank they were squatting in.
The Love Activists have gone on to provide regional news broadcasts with plenty to report on this year. Cue footage of protesters chanting anti-austerity slogans while squatting inside buildings and on land, and you get the idea.
So it wasn’t a surprise when a council instructed me shortly afterwards to answer a deceptively simple question. What can a local authority do when its land or buildings are invaded by such unwelcome visitors? After all, to issue a typical CPR Part 55 possession claim would involve embarking on a process that wouldn’t see the case reach court for a few weeks.
My first case against the Love Activists had involved obtaining an “Interim Possession Order”. This is an order requiring a defendant to vacate premises within 24 hours of service of the order. In theory the possession order is an interim one in as much as it requires the defendant to leave the property until a final order is made. The detailed provisions governing this procedure are set out in CPR 55.21 onwards.
Crucially, there are many strict procedural requirements. The right forms must be used and undertakings given, the timescales must be complied with and the remedy is available only where premises are occupied by trespassers.
The keen observer may ask why a property owner doesn’t just apply for an interim injunction. Subject to important caveats, this is possible although, again, there are procedural hurdles. In fact, on one occasion I have done just that, albeit under the additional pressures of making the application by phone to a High Court judge over a bank holiday weekend.
There is a key problem, though. Unlike a possession order, an injunction is a purely personal remedy. So possession cannot be obtained from trespassers none of whose names are known. Also if further trespassers enter after proceedings are commenced, those further trespassers must also be sued and an injunction obtained against them personally. What’s more, enforcement requires committal proceedings rather than a simple warrant of possession.
A local authority may find that a group of protesters congregates on a highway. Is this actionable? As with everything else I’m skimming through, this is a wide topic subject to all sorts of nuances. Even so, recent law students may be familiar with Jones v DPP  2 AC 240 in which the House of Lords held that a peaceful, non-obstructive assembly of 21 people was permitted on a highway.
Perhaps all is not lost. Section 21 of the Town Police Clauses At 1847 permits a Lord Mayor to make orders for a route to be observed to prevent obstruction of streets in times of processions and “in any case when the streets are thronged or liable to be obstructed”. Admittedly, section 21 must be carefully consulted to see whether its narrow application assists. But where it applies the Mayor may give directions to the police for keeping order and preventing obstruction of the streets.
There are other cases, too, where a council’s best bet may be to think ahead as well as outside the box. The ones that strike me are these.
Where protesters take over a building and then throw out missiles or “dirt”, it may be possible to commit them to prison under section 28 of the Act (subject, no doubt, to the de minimis principle).
Also don’t forget section 15 of the Open Spaces Act 1906 which provides for certain types of local authority to make byelaws to preserve order and regulate nuisance on open spaces. Importantly, byelaws can also provide for the police to remove those involved in prohibited activities. This is an Act, though, with more than its fair share of qualifications and nuances: much the same can probably be said of the similar provisions found in section 164 of the Public Health Act 1875.
And some handy recent law is set out in sections 59ff of the Anti Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014. This provides for the making of a Public Space Protection Order. Someone who without reasonable excuse does something on a public space that is prohibited under a PSPO may be issued with a fixed penalty notice. It is hardly a cast iron way to scare protesters off land, but it is worth bearing in mind.
So there you go: several ways to take action, all of which with their own challenges. I’ve obtained three possession orders against the Love Activists on behalf of different clients, and I’m ready for the next Greggs paper bag that comes hurtling my way.