Letter to NSW Police Commissioner about NSW Police Treatment of Legal Observers

Open Letter to the Police Commissioner from Lydia Shelly

I write in my capacity as the President of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (the Council), one of Australia’s leading human rights and civil liberties organisations. This is an open letter addressing concerns about the treatment of independent Legal Observers by the New South Wales Police (NSW Police) during a recent climate change protest in Newcastle.

The Council, founded in 1963, is a non-political, non-religious, and non-sectarian organisation dedicated to championing the rights of all to express their views and beliefs without suppression. We hold Non-Government Organisation status in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, as per resolution 2006/221 (21 July 2006).

At the climate change protest on Sunday, November 26, 2023, in Newcastle, several Legal Observers were charged for activities that were within their role as Legal Observers. These individuals were easily identifiable by wearing pink high-visibility jackets with "Legal Observers" written across the vest in large black letters. Furthermore, the arrested Legal Observers informed the police of their independent role and function at the protest.

Independent Legal Observers, usually volunteers, aim to improve police conduct and protect the rights of protestors. While their attendance may be requested by organisers, they remain independent of the protest itself and do not participate in the protest, decision-making processes, or the direction of protestors.

Their hands-on tasks include distributing information cards, briefing individuals about their legal rights, taking notes and photographs, and recording interactions through video. Volunteer Legal Observers are recognized as Human Rights Defenders by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and are protected by the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

It is concerning that the function of Legal Observers appears to be neither uniformly well understood nor respected by NSW police. This issue existed in 2021, prompting the Council to correspond with the then Commissioner on August 4, 2021.

We reiterate our long-standing concerns and call on you to:

  1. Ensure that 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.

It is imperative that NSW Police are informed of the role of independent Legal Observers, and we request that this is the last time that NSW Police arrest Legal Observers during the course of their observations at a protest.

NSWCCL representatives remain open to meeting with you to discuss our concerns should that be helpful.