How to set up a legal support team

Why do you need a legal support team
Co-ordinating a legal support team:
   Preparation
   Resources
   On the day
   Post demo debriefing and support

Why do you need a legal support team?

It is important that your group is clear about what it wants to achieve. There are lots of things that a legal support team can do – you may not have the resources to do all of them, or you may have particular needs for your groups or demonstration.

Common aims of a legal support team are to:

• Monitor and assess policing;

• Provide information on basic rights, such as rights on arrest, or on stop and search;

• Support people who are arrested, by obtaining witness statements and/or providing police station support;

• Collect information that may be useful to a civil or criminal legal case, eg use of kettling, surveillance, aggression or violence by the police;

• Provide ongoing legal support for individuals undergoing criminal trial, or taking civil claims.

Monitoring policing is crucial in order to understand and counter disruptive or oppressive policing, and doing this normally means getting a good team of trained legal observers out on the demonstration. Getting good monitoring structures in place also means you can easily collect information that may end up being vital in a civil or criminal trial. Observers should monitor police activity such as the use of cordons, surveillance, use of force or stop and search, and should note time, place and where appropriate police ID numbers.

Giving out written legal advice is usually limited to rights on arrest, or on stop and search, but you may wish to prepare written advice on other topics if you think it might be necessary. Make sure any information to be given out is in writing, is clear and easily understood, and isn’t too legalistic. It should be made quite clear though, that legal observers are not expected to answer questions on the law. That is not their role – they are observers, not public law specialists!

Supporting those arrested is a traditional role of legal observers, but be realistic about what you can achieve. Legal observers can do a valuable job taking names and contact details of witnesses, but your ability to provide on-going court support for criminal or civil trials will depend largely on the resources you have available. Keeping track of prosecutions can be a lot easier if arrestees have all used the bust card lawyers, and you have a good relationship with that firm.

Co-ordinating a legal support team

Preparation

Legally observing on the demonstration itself though, is only a small part of what is needed. There is a lot to do in preparing and co-ordinating legal observers on the demonstration. This needs a committed group of people – it is too much work for just one, especially if you are thinking of providing post arrest police station or court support.

  1. Find your legal observers. There are often people who are happy to take on the role, as it is widely recognised as being important. You may need to reassure people that a legal background, or legal knowledge is not essential, and that a keen eye and calm approach is much more important!
  2. Train your legal observers. The Police Monitoring Network may be able to provide training, or put you in touch with someone else who can. Even if your legal observers have already been trained, it is important that they are fully briefed on the circumstances of this demo, and what they are being asked to do.
  3. Arrange legal support with a local solicitor. Finding a local firm willing and able to provide a good service on the demonstration can be difficult. It helps if the firm understands the legal issues around political protest, particularly the advantages of ‘no comment’ interviews. Depending on the size and nature of the demonstration, they may also need to be willing to put extra people on duty or on call if needed. If you do not already know of a suitable firm, ask around, and call a few to get an idea of their attitudes. If possible, arrange a meeting with them.
  4. Arrange resources. There are a surprising amount of things you will need – see resources
  5. Set up a phone line. On larger demonstrations in particular it may be helpful to have someone on the phone that can maintain regular contact with legal observers, and create a time-line of events. You may also want to have a separate number that appears on bust cards, which people can ring if they have witnessed an arrest or assault – but be aware that this can generate a large number of unwanted and irrelevant calls!
  6. Police station support. Decide whether you are able to provide police station support to anyone who is arrested. This usually means waiting at the police station for people to be released, and it can be a long wait. It is good to offer support and meet arrestees with friendly faces and a lift home – especially if the police station is in an unfamiliar or rural area, or if they are going through their first arrest. It also establishes contacts to help keep track of prosecutions. If you are providing police station support you need to decide in advance who is doing it, and consider whether they will need a car. Good communications with your chosen law firm can be crucial here, as they may be able to tell you where people are being held, and when (or whether) they are likely to be released. Don’t rely on police staff themselves to do this – they are at best obstructive, and at worst untruthful!!

Resources

  1. Bust cards. It is important that people have a basic idea of their rights on arrest, and this is usually delivered through a bust card. If nothing else, a bust card needs to get over the importance of staying silent in interview (often crucial in public order situations) and to give the number of your chosen firm of solicitors. If there are a lot of arrests it is much easier to track and support people afterwards if they are all represented by a single firm. See examples of bust cards here
  2. .

  3. Bibs. legal observers will need hi-vis bibs carrying the words ‘legal observer’. Plain bibs are available at builder supply shops, or check the police monitoring website.
  4. Notebooks, pens and pencils. Make sure you have plentiful supplies, as it is likely people will not remember to bring their own! If it is likely to rain consider plastic wallets to keep notebooks dry. Some legal observers are experimenting with other means of recording events, such as digital voice recorders (especially useful if they can produce an automatic computer generated transcript), and cameras. Cameras are very useful in recording police activities, and can record the ID numbers of individual police officers, but legal observers should be carefully briefed to avoid taking photographs that may be helpful to the police.
  5. Maps. If your legal observers are not familiar with the area, a map is crucial. If you can laminate them to deal with bad weather, even better!
  6. Witness statement forms. Experience has shown that getting people to fill in witness statements of what they have seen THERE AND THEN is one of the best ways to get information and witness contact details.
  7. Phones. Make sure every legal observer has a phone, and consider supplying them one for the day which has credit and a fully charged battery! Ensure you have phone numbers for everyone.

On the day

  1. Make sure your group of legal observers meet a good time before the demonstration starts. It is essential that legal observers are present as people start to collect, as this is a good time to observe the police set up, and it is also the time when the police may stop and search, or enforce conditions on an assembly.
  2. Have bust cards, bibs, pencils and notebooks, maps, witness statements and checklists (see above) ready to give to legal observers on the day. Don’t expect that people will bring their own – some will invariably forget!!
  3. Check that everyone has a working phone, and that you have their numbers.
  4. Give legal observers a final briefing. This should include the location of the assembly, the route of any procession, and any potential flashpoints for conflict. It should also specify a final meeting up point for legal observers to get together at the end of the day.
  5. Give legal observers the number of the phone line, if there is one, and encourage them to provide updates regularly
  6. Arrange a debrief. Debriefs are very important – without them much of the information observers collect will be lost. Arrange a time that suits most people. Immediately after the demonstration is often the best time, but this is not always possible, especially if the demonstration goes on for longer than expected. If getting people to a debrief meeting looks difficult, consider an on-line debriefing. Make sure legal observers know how to hand in notebooks etc.
  7. Split up your groups so that there is at least one group covering each location or part of the demonstration. If part of the demonstration is ‘kettled’ or contained in a set area by police, it is important that legal observers are also there.
  8. Maintain contact with legal observers, so that they can be redeployed to areas where they are needed if circumstances change, but also to make sure they are safe and re-assured.
  9. Use the updates you get from legal observers to build a time-line of events. Social media can also be useful for adding to your timeline.

Post-demo debriefing and support

  1. If at all possible, hold a debrief. Allow legal observers to discuss the events of the day, and compare their experiences. Collect notebooks and witness statements. Get feedback and identify anything that could have been done differently.
  2. Identify statements / notes that may be useful to those defending criminal charges or pursuing civil claims.
  3. Liaise with the lawyers and pass on relevant info. Try to build up a picture of how many have been arrested and what they have been charged with (if anything). This is public information often released by the police, so should not cause data protection issues.
  4. If you are intending to do defendants support work, you need to invite defendants to make contact with you. Make use of social networking, website appeals, and ask lawyers to pass your details onto the defendants they are dealing with. Support through the court process can be crucial, as it can be highly stressful and intimidating. Support for families is also sometimes much needed.

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