Protection from Harassment Act being used to suppress dissent?

Interesting what happens when you put a story up on the net. Tim linked back to our story on the Belfast man who has been arrested twice under the above mentioned Act of Parliament. He links (via blogger Calum Carr) to an article in March by George Monbiot:

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is, on the face of it, a sensible piece of legislation defending people from stalkers. But when it was drafted, several of us warned that it failed to distinguish between genuine harassment and legitimate protest. Harassment includes “alarming the person or causing the person distress”, which could mean almost anything: you can alarm someone, for example, by telling them that pulverised fly ash contains mercury. It requires a “course of conduct” to be pursued, but this means nothing more than doing something twice. If you take two pictures of workers felling trees, that counts. Conduct also includes speech.

Worse still, the legislation was the first of several “behaviour acts” which blur the distinction between civil and criminal offences. The victim of the course of conduct may take a civil claim to the high court. On the basis of far less evidence than a criminal case requires, the court can grant an injunction against the defendant. If the defendant then breaks that injunction – by continuing to talk to the people he is seeking to dissuade, or to march or picket or protest – he then commits a criminal offence, carrying up to five years’ imprisonment.

We warned that the legislation had the makings of a new sedition law. No one took us seriously. But the first three people to be arrested under the act were peaceful protesters. Since then it has been used repeatedly to stifle what should be legitimate dissent.

Even more fascinating (and damning) is this rebuttal from the law firm which advised Parliament on the framing of the law, that they have in any way acted unethically in since utilising the act’s provisions to protect its clients:

“Our involvement in the harassment act concerned the drafting and introduction of a private member’s bill against stalking in 1996. Our aim was to assist in bringing in legislation to prohibit stalking. Our aim was defeated by parliament, which determined and decided to outlaw harassment.

“Various jurisprudential concepts from the stalking bill were incorporated into the act, but it was drafted in far wider terms. At the time we advised those we assisted in the parliamentary process that the law against harassment was far more outreaching than our original intention. We are fully entitled to use existing legislation to seek to protect our clients’ interests and there is no conflict of interest.” [emphasis added].

So one of the final parliamentary acts of the last Tory government appears to have developed considerable ‘political’ bite. Even as far as putting a nasty bite on bloggers. The question has to be: who’s next?