Anti-lockdown activist, 46, who organised ‘Freedom Rally’ to oppose tougher restrictions last November is CLEARED by judge of breaking Covid rules
- Activist is cleared of breaching lockdown rules after attending freedom rally
- Debbie Hicks was arrested at rally in Gloucestershire attended around 50 people
- She claimed to be exercising right to freedom of expression by protesting rules
- Gloucestershire Police response to the rally was ‘not proportionate and rational’
An anti-lockdown activist who organised a ‘Freedom Rally’ to oppose the introduction of new lockdown restrictions has been cleared of breaching Covid regulations after a judge ruled her arrest was disproportionate and breached her human rights.
Debbie Hicks, 46, helped to organise the rally attended by more than 50 people holding placards and banners in Gloucestershire on November 7 last year – two days after emergency restrictions came into force.
The self-proclaimed free speech and anti-lockdown campaigner has previously been arrested for filming inside a hospital and sharing footage claiming the Covid pandemic is a ‘massive scam’.
Ms Hicks appeared at Cheltenham Magistrates’ Court on Monday charged with breaching the Coronavirus Act by failing to leave Stratford Park, Stroud, when requested to do so by police, but pleaded not guilty to the offence.
She also denied an alternative charge of participating in the rally on the basis she had carried out a risk assessment to comply with health and safety obligations for the public event.
Debbie Hicks seen being arrested at a Freedom Rally, Anti Lockdown Protest at Stratford Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire, on November 7, 2020
Ms Hicks has been cleared of breaching Covid restrictions at a freedom rally in Gloucestershire in November last year
District Judge Nicholas Wattam told the court he had no doubt Ms Hicks helped to organise and facilitate the gathering after finding she had undertaken the risk assessments, provided the public address system and invited guest speakers.
However, a lawyer representing Ms Hicks posed the question of whether she was simply exercising her freedom of expression and rights under the Human Rights Act.
Hannah Thomas added that, if Ms Hicks was, then she could not be found guilty of the charges.
District Judge Wattam said that, in his view, Gloucestershire Police’s response to the rally had not been proportionate and was not a rational response to what was happening in the park that day.
He added that Ms Hicks had a reasonable excuse not to adhere to Covid regulations as her human rights were protected.
Richard Posner, prosecuting, had earlier told the court the Coronavirus Act came into force on November 5, 2020, and police were given the task of enforcing the new regulations under their existing powers of arrest.
Ms Hicks pictured wearing a party hat instead of a mask on the Tube
He added that Ms Hicks had filled in an online risk assessment form with Gloucestershire Police on October 26, which stated she was the organiser of the rally and she had given her contact details as part of the application for the event to take place on November 7.
More than 50 people attended the lunchtime rally with the intention of marching to the local MP’s office, but instead the event stayed at the park, the court heard.
Ms Hicks was recorded on police bodyworn cameras stating to an officer that she had no idea how many people would be attending.
PC Tim Birch described hearing ‘jeering and clapping’ over what was being said over amplified speakers.
He informed Ms Hicks she would be given a summons notice if she failed to leave the park, but she ‘made it clear’ she would remain at the rally, the officer said.
She was subsequently arrested.
In evidence, Ms Hicks told the court: ‘I have a keen interest in politics and have been actively involved against Covid-19 restrictions over past two years. I am not an anti-vaxxer, but the Government’s coronavirus restrictions are a cause that I feel strongly about.
‘The rally was a freedom of speech exercise. The timing of the freedom rally was chosen by the organisers before the legislation changes.
‘I feel these restrictions disrupt life and the freedom to speak out. I have studied the law around this and I am convinced that this was a legal protest.
‘There was no pre-publicity, but it had become known that Piers Corbyn, the anti-vaccination activist, had been due to speak at the event. In the end he didn’t appear at the rally.
‘I believe I had a lawful right to be there and conduct the rally in a legal manner. At the beginning of the event I asked for social distancing to be maintained. I even thanked the police for allowing the rally to go ahead.’
Ms Hicks also explained she felt the new Covid rules placed a restriction on her freedom of speech if she was unable to protest.
Ms Hicks is a former Labour council candidate and supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers (pictured together), who is an anti-lockdown campaigner
Mr Posner argued she did not have a reasonable excuse to hold the rally, but Ms Thomas said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to find her guilty of organising the event.
She added that ‘police did not understand the legislation on the day she was arrested’.
Returning his verdict, District Judge Wattam said: ‘The new regulations came into force on November 5, 2020 under the Government’s emergency powers.
“However, there are a number of exceptions to these rules – such as a person with a reasonable excuse such as Ms Hicks has put forward, citing Human Rights legislation. She says she was engaging in lawful protest, and therefore she cannot be found guilty under the legislation.
‘Living through this pandemic has not been easy and policing it must have been considerably harder. However I am concerned that on the day in question Gloucestershire Constabulary had imposed a blanket ban on public protests.
‘Such a policy never amounts to a proportionate response.
He added that the rally had taken place in a public place, was peaceful and social distancing was encouraged.
As a result, Ms Hicks had a ‘reasonable excuse’ to be in attendance.
The judge added: ‘I fear that the police officers’ understanding on the ground was flawed. This was mainly due to the briefing by a senior officer, and not the fault of those on the ground.
‘A blanket prohibition of public gathering cannot be proportionate as it breaches the Court of Human Rights legislation.
Ms Hicks, of Stroud, was found not guilty on both charges.
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