The Magistrates’ Court announced on twitter this week that the DPP decided to not appeal the 23 July 2012 decision dismissing trespass charges against protestors at Max Brenner’s chocolate bar in Melbourne from 1 July 2011. (The decision is available on the Magistrates’ Court website here.)
So, what’s the effect of all this?
Well, the first thing to note is that, pedantically, the decision doesn’t create a precedent, because the doctrine of precedent provides that decisions made by courts bind inferior courts in the same hierarchy: Broome v Cassell & Co Ltd  AC 1027 at 1054; Trident General Insurance Co Ltd v McNiece Bros Pty Ltd (1988) 165 CLR 107.
And after reading the decision, I’m not so sure it’s quite the green light that some folks claim, or a sudden recognition of the right to public protest. There are several appellate cases that endorse a right to political protest, albeit subject to limitations, such as Coleman v Power (2004) 220 CLR 1, Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth (1992) 177 CLR 106, Melbourne Corporation v Barry (1922) 31 CLR 174, Commissioner of Police v Allen (1984) 14 A Crim R 244, Commissioner of Police (NSW) v Gabriel (2004) 141 A Crim R 566.
The protest took place at the QV Melbourne, a shopping complex built on the remnants of the old Queen Victoria hospital at the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets.
The police arrested a number of people at the protest, and charged 16.
All were charged with:
- besetting premises, contrary to Summary Offences Act 1966 s 52(1A); and
- wilful trespass, contrary to Summary Offences Act 1966 s 9(1)(d)
Eight of those accused were also charged with resisting or assaulting police in the execution of their duty, contrary to Summary Offences Act s 52.
At the close of the prosecution case, all accused submitted they had no case to answer.
The magistrate agreed with that on the besetting and trespass charges, but not for all of the resisting police charges.
There are surprisingly few reported criminal cases on this offence. Most of the cases seem to be civil ones, and — unsurprisingly — they all dealt with picket lines at industrial disputes. (There’s an extremely useful book discussing besetting as a sub-species of the tort of nuisance: Dealing with demonstrations by Roger Douglas, at pp 96 – 98.)
The cases the Magistrates’ Court considered were Dollar Sweets Pty Ltd v Federated Confectioners Association of Australia  VR 383, Animal Liberation (Vic) Inc v Gasser  1 VR 51 and DPP v Fidler  1 WLR 91. Douglas’ book adds Barloworld Coatings (Aust) Pty Ltd v Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union  NSWSC 826. For good measure, I reckon R v Commissioner of Police; Ex p North Broken Hill Ltd (1992) 1 Tas R 99, 61 A Crim R 390 — dealing with the Associated Pulp and Paper Mill picket — is probably relevant too.
The gravamen of these cases is that besetting involves notions of physically or forcibly preventing access to premises.
Here, folks were walking in and out of the shop, and apparently past and through the protestors, until the police formed lines across Red Cape Lane, turning back the public from going east in the lane to the shop.
In this case, the Court found on the evidence that the true cause of preventing access to the Max Brenner shop was not the protestors, but rather, the police lines set up to oppose the protestors, at  –  of the decision.
The offence of wilful trespass contrary to Summary Offences Act s 9(1)(d) relevantly provides:
Any person who wilfully trespasses in any public place other than a Scheduled public place and neglects or refuses to leave that place after being warned to do so by the owner occupier or a person authorized by or on behalf of the owner or occupier shall be guilty of an offence.
The police distributed notices purporting to prohibit entry to QV Melbourne for demonstrating, and QV management placed signs around QV Melbourne purporting to prohibit entry to people who intended to demonstrate or obstruct any tenants’ premises.
The QV Melbourne site was owned by Commonwealth Management Investments Ltd and Victoria Square QV Investments. It was managed by Colonial First State Property Management Pty Ltd, trading as Colonial First State Global Asset Management.
But…unbeknownst to the police, the property was subject to an agreement between the owners and the Melbourne City Council in accordance with Planning and Environment Act 1987 s 173. That agreement contained a covenant obliging the owners to keep the laneways and QV Square open to the public 24/7.
At , the Court held that the effect of the covenant was that QV’s owners and managers could not lawfully apply conditions on the entry of members of the public to the site.
Additionally, the Court held that the protestors had a lawful right to protest in accordance with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 ss 15 and 16, and that the nature of the protest did not justify limiting that right under s 7.
Last, at , the Court held the prosecution could not establish the protestors could hear the police direction to leave or face arrest, and that the charge failed for that reason too. I’m not so sure about this one, at the no-case state, when it seemed arguable at least that the protestors had a fair inkling what the police were telling them, and the protestors were seemingly making a lot of noise to avoid hearing it. (Wilful deafness?)
Resisting or assaulting police
The Court referred to Crimes Act 1958 ss 458 and 461, emphasising that where police believe it is necessary to arrest someone, and that belief is reasonable, the arrest won’t be unlawful (or will still be lawful) even if the suspected person is later found to have not committed the offence.
The Court also considered the use of reasonable force, citing Woodley v Boyd  NSWCA 35, Lindley v Rutter  QV 128 and McIntosh v Webster (1980) 43 FLR 112 — but curiously, not to Crimes Act s 462A. In some instances, the force used by the arresting police was excessive, and as a result some charges of resisting police failed at the no-case stage. (For example, at .) On other charges — such as at , the Court found there was a case to answer for allegations such as throwing a punch at a police officer, and at  for bear-hugging another protestor to prevent arrest, and  – , struggling to prevent arrest.
On the facts in this case, it seems difficult to find fault with the Court’s findings on the besetting charges. Those charges are probably better suited to ones where the protestors are in control of access points — such as in a traditional picket — and much less likely to succeed as here, where the police have the numbers to physically block access to places. I can imagine why the police would want to stop conflict between protestors and members of the public (or in other scenarios, between rival protestors), but I reckon they would always struggle succeeding with the charge of besetting premises in those situations.
The wilful trespass charge is less certain IMO. There are cases dealing with the right of occupiers or people authorised by occupiers to rescind a licence to enter or remain on property, such as O v Wedd  TASSC 74; Bethune v Heffernan Heelan v Heyward  VR 417, but I don’t think they would have helped here because of the covenant on the property. Could the Melbourne City Council have restricted entry, or even the police, given the fundamental public character of the property? Probably not I suspect.
It could be open to the police to rely on the common-law breach of the peace provisions, or the move-on powers in the Summary Offences Act, but they have their own difficulties too, as I mentioned here, and more recently, discussed by Charon QC here (and see the judgment here).
Probably unless and until Parliament sees fit to legislate on this area, we won’t know until any particular case is decided at court. Don’t hold your breath though: we’re still waiting for the IBAC to get off the ground 13 months after it was scheduled to start operation.