Direct action: When Campaigners break the law

Pressure groups have an ambivalent relationship with the law - and with each other, writes Kirsten Downer.

What do Fathers 4 Justice and the suffragette movement have in common?

More than you might think, according to Matt O'Connor, founder of the fathers' rights group.

"Society changes, and the law needs time to catch up," he says. "People will look back and say 'those people had a point'. They will look back on us fondly, as they do on the suffragettes. We're defending the sacred bond between parent and child - a higher moral imperative than man-made law."

O'Connor's belief - that individuals have a right to engage in civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws - is a view shared by disenfranchised groups across the political spectrum. It has recently found unlikely converts in Countryside Alliance chairman John Jackson.

Campaign groups have an ambivalent relationship with the law and each other. On the one hand, the sector reflects society in its deep distrust of law-breaking behaviour; on the other, many feel that individuals must be free to follow their consciences, and that they have a duty to challenge unjust laws.

The diversity of the voluntary sector reflects an increasingly diverse and potentially conflicting society. For every group fighting to get the law changed, another organisation exists to overturn that decision. For some caught in such battles, this might mean taking on an unfamiliar role.

Movements previously associated with law-breaking, such as the anti-hunt lobby, now find themselves, in effect, upholding the law. For these groups, the transition from championing civil disobedience to condemning it is not an easy one.

Part of the problem, say campaigners, is that society operates a double standard in how it views the law - direct action is often savagely criticised, while other forms of legal subterfuge are quietly ignored.

"People break the law all the time," says Greenpeace director of campaigns John Sauven. "No driver I know has always kept to the official speed limit.

The only reason people don't break the limit more often is that they don't want to get banned. If they could get away with it, they would."

Whether or not they agree with this double standard, most mainstream campaigning organisations have to abide by it because they cannot afford to be seen breaking the law. Any group caught out in this way risks a death blow to their credibility and, if they are a charity, removal from the register.

Direct action will, however, continue to be an irresistible campaign tool as long as it keeps proving effective. Greenpeace claims victories on sustainably logged timber and renewable energy, both now growth industries.

Fathers 4 Justice has existed for less than three years, but claims to have already influenced both Labour and Conservative family policy. It sees direct action as a short-cut to influence. "We don't have time for parliamentary lobbying," says O'Connor. "We want to get the job over as quickly as possible."

Campaigning charities have an added set of hoops to jump through in order to keep within the law, and even more so before an election. Until recently, draconian Charity Commission guidelines prevented charity campaigns from achieving much more than superfluous noise. Many campaigners held back, terrified of breaking charity law. Those that didn't fell foul of the commission - notably Oxfam, which was criticised for campaigning against the Pol Pot regime with too much vigour.

Thankfully, the commission has now liberalised its interpretation of the law. Restrictions still exist, however, and many organisations prefer not to remain charities and forgo the financial benefits.

One way around the legal pitfalls of campaigning is to create informal links between influential 'insider' organisations and more confrontational 'outsider' groups. Having a risk-taking organisation as an ally - one prepared to break the law and embarrass people on behalf of your cause - has reaped benefits for groups that cannot afford to go that far themselves.

The co-existence of 'co-operative' and 'confrontational' campaigning organisations is often mutually beneficial, with each group providing opportunities for the other to exploit.

For example, it was dissatisfied members of the League Against Cruel Sports, frustrated at the pace of change, who set up the Hunt Saboteurs Association in the 1960s. Although the league is reluctant to admit it, the HSA has helped keep the issue in the public arena for the past 40 years. Low-level dialogue has gone on between the two groups, and the HSA claims its videotaped evidence won over some MPs to the cause.

Mike Hobday, public affairs head at the LACS, denies the hunt saboteurs' role was so crucial but admits the group attracted young people to the movement and helped publicise the issue.

In another example, WWF benefited from Greenpeace's confrontational tactics; its Forest and Trade Network, a group of firms signed up to buy timber from environmentally sustainable sources, was making little headway until Greenpeace's high-profile campaigning - most notably breaking into the new Home Office building in 2002. As Tessa Robertson, head of WWF's forest programme, puts it: "We want to help businesses become more sustainable.

Greenpeace makes businesses and governments realise they want to be helped."

But this symbiotic relationship becomes counter-productive if peaceful organisations become tainted by the aggressive tactics used by groups with the same aims. The intimidation used by some extremist pro-life and animal rights groups has seriously tarnished the reputation of both movements.

Sadly, the repercussions could end up affecting the entire sector. According to Gareth Crossman, head of policy at Liberty, the new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act potentially criminalises all those involved in peaceful protest. The Act is, in part, a reaction to the activities of animal rights groups fighting animal testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences, as well as last year's infamous Fathers 4 Justice Buckingham Palace trespass.

Trespassing on private land used to be a civil offence, and legal action was rarely taken against offenders. Under the new Act, however, trespassers could end up in prison or, at the very least, with a criminal record.

The legislation gives the Home Secretary the power to designate any area of private land subject to criminal law "for national and security reasons".

This could criminalise leafleting at arms fairs, for example. It also becomes a criminal offence for protesters to come within 1km of Westminster without police authorisation.

If the Act had been in place last year, it is unclear whether the large Countryside Alliance demonstration in Parliament Square could have gone ahead. Such an Act would have made the legendary 1932 mass trespass at Kinder Scout, which started the Ramblers' Association, much more improbable.

Given the failure of the huge anti-war protests in 2003, some cynics already question the impact of mass demonstrations. Turning the law against your enemies is arguably more effective - increasingly, governments and corporations are the ones defending themselves in court, rather than campaigners.

According to Mark Lattimer, author of The Campaigning Handbook: "Two government decisions are overturned in the courts every day."

The recent release of terrorism suspects who were being held at Belmarsh prison without trial was achieved through a voluntary sector campaign led by lawyers. Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance will challenge the legal validity of the Parliament Act later this year. If this fails, it plans to overturn the law by using the Human Rights Act, which could go all the way to Strasbourg.

More campaign groups are realising how useful European law can be - NCVO's Euro group now has 280 members. Greenpeace, presently seeking a judicial review of the Government's policy on dolphin deaths in the English Channel, won an important victory under European law against the UK Government in 2000. The victory restricted the marine areas in which not just the UK but all European countries can drill for oil.

Provided you have prepared your evidence and are sure of winning, going through the courts need not be financially prohibitive, says Sauven. "If you win you can get your expenses paid," he says. "Taking corporations and governments to court can be a cost-efficient way of making a point."

But with the bewildering range of conflicting interests in the voluntary sector, changing the law is not necessarily the best way to guarantee change; there is little point in one minority group breaking out the bubbly if a rival minority group is poised to overturn its legal victory. Rival interests range from access to the countryside (Ramblers Association vs the Country Land and Business Association), to fox hunting (Countryside Alliance vs LACS), to abortion (Marie Stopes, Brook vs Life) and refugees (Migration Watch vs the Refugee Council). All these groups believe they are 'right' while the public looks on, increasingly confused.

Ultimately, says RNID head of communications Brian Lamb, the law can only do so much for your cause. "We've had equal rights legislation passed on race and women," he says. "But has it prevented racial or sexual harassment?

If you want to change attitudes, education is necessary." In true campaigner fashion, he paraphrases Martin Luther King: "The law can stop another man lynching me, but it can't make another man love me."

WHAT THEY SAID...

"We have to do this stuff to get media attention because we don't qualify for charity money. We're the people who do things that people shouldn't be doing. Even David Blunkett's dog can see we're having an effect"

MATT O'CONNOR, FOUNDER, FATHERS 4 JUSTICE

"If something is wrong, you stop it. We want to work within the law, but we are prepared to break it. If Greenpeace was a charity, we'd be out of business within an hour"

JOHN SAUVEN, CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR, GREENPEACE

"The human rights issue is just the hunting movement's latest excuse. It's ridiculous. Do you have a human right to go home and kick your cat?"

MIKE HOBDAY, HEAD OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS, LEAGUE AGAINST CRUEL SPORTS

"Charity campaigners have always assumed we were on the side of the angels, campaigning against the establishment, which wasn't. Now it's not so simple"

BRIAN LAMB, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, RNID

"Respect for the rule of law is vital if we are to live in a civilised society. Life's aims and objectives can be upheld through reasoned argument without resorting to bully-boy tactics and intimidation"

MARTIN FOLEY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, LIFE

"We would never start trouble - but our members have a right to defend themselves"

NATHAN BROWN, PRESS OFFICER, HUNT SABOTEURS ASSOCIATION.

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