Media Statement: Police Must Withdraw Charges against Legal Observers

We are concerned that New South Wales (NSW) police have arrested several Legal Observers at the recent climate change protest that occurred on Sunday, November 25, 2023.

Legal Observers attend protests, usually as volunteers, to protect the rights of those protesting and to improve police accountability. Their hands-on tasks include handing out information cards, briefing people about their legal rights, taking notes and photographs, and video recording interactions. Volunteer Legal Observers are recognized as Human Rights Defenders by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and, as such, fall under the protection of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

The Declaration of the Right to Protest, which we recently endorsed, recognizes the important role of Legal Observers and calls for their protection. Their role and importance do not diminish or extinguish even if a protest is declared “unlawful.”

The Legal Observers at the recent climate change protest were clearly identifiable in pink hi-vis vests with “Legal Observers” written on them. They informed NSW police of their role at the protest.

Comments from Lydia Shelly, President, NSW Council for Civil Liberties

This is not the first time that NSW Police have arrested Legal Observers during the course of them undertaking their observations at protests. In August 2021, we sent an open letter to the then NSW Police Commissioner urging NSW Police to immediately rectify their lack of understanding of the important role that Legal Observers perform. This was required as a result of several Legal Observers being charged at protests across Sydney.

It is unfortunate that, yet again, circumstances are such that we are sending a nearly identical letter to the current NSW Police Commissioner. We call on the NSW Police Commissioner to:

  1. Ensure that Sydney police officers are briefed on the role of Legal Observers and understand that role, its legitimacy, and Legal Observers' right to carry out that role unhindered.
  2. Ensure that police officers do not obstruct Legal Observers as they carry out this role.
  3. Ensure that police officers do not instruct Legal Observers to direct protestors, but instead respect their independence.
  4. Ensure that police do not ask Legal Observers not to video, do not deliberately step in the way as videoing occurs, and likewise do not seek to prevent members of the public from recording interactions.
  5. Ensure that Legal Observers are not required to produce their ID without grounds, other than performing this role.

New South Wales already has a reputation for being a state that restricts and curtails the right to protest unnecessarily. It is shameful that NSW Police have arrested and charged Legal Observers at the recent climate change protest. It risks the State of NSW, which is already home to some of the most draconian anti-protest laws in the country, becoming further tarnished in the eyes of those who value transparency, accountability, and civil liberties.

The charges against the Legal Observers should be immediately withdrawn. It is not in the public interest for these charges to proceed. If the charges are not withdrawn, it risks sending a dangerous message to the public that NSW police do not want their interactions or conduct with peaceful protestors monitored by independent organisations. It also further strains the already deteriorating relationship between NSW police and segments of our communities.