News & Views

What is this thing called Legal Observing?

And why do you wear those pink vests?

Legal Observers, or Human Rights Monitors as they are sometimes called, have become a common sight at large scale protest events throughout the western world over the past decade or so and the chances are you have seem MALS Legal Observers in the pink hi-vis vests at a protest in Melbourne.

Working in organised teams in hi-visibility vests, arm-bands or special caps and armed with clipboards and cameras, Legal Observers are becoming more common at protests as governments increase police powers, restrict protest activity and roll-back basic democratic freedoms in ways once unimaginable.

The independent citizen monitoring or police has a long history. For several decades now, community activists, law students and movement lawyers have actively opposed police brutality using means to directly observe, record and monitoring it.   Locally organised “cop watch” and legal observer initiatives have made a real difference to communities seeking reprieve from relentless police targeting and violence and for protesters facing armed and dangerous police at protests throughout the world.

In the United States the Black Panthers was perhaps the earliest group to deploy community legal observers to patrol and monitor the policing of Black communities in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Observer teams have been used for many decades in places like Northern Ireland, where independent civilian groups formed ongoing human rights monitoring teams with the aim of documenting and deterring the brutality of the occupying military and police force. The Central Citizens Defence Committee (CCDC) developed to monitor relations between the Catholic community and the army  and police during the civil disturbances of the late 1960s. 

The Irish Network for Non-violent Action Training and Education (INNATE),  developed models and training for monitors and organised observer teams at ‘Orange Parade’ flashpoints between 1988 and 1993. 

In Australia, the first known organised approach to monitoring/observing or watching police was in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern during the late 1960’s.

In 1969, a group of Redfern based Aboriginal activists that included Paul and Isabel Coe, Gary Foley, Billy and Lyn Craigie, Gary Williams, Bronwyn Penrith, Tony Coorey, and James Wedge, started monitoring and recording the everyday experience of police brutality and harrassment.

According to Gary Foley, because of ‘the degree of daily confrontation with police in Redfern…the young radicals came to decide that the issue of police harassment and intimidation should be tackled.’ They started in 1969 to undertake surveillance of the police. Armed only with pens and notebooks, Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Gary Williams and Billy Craigie began recording police activity and identification numbers in raids on the Empress and other local pubs in Redfern. According to local activist Kaye Bellear, this action was known locally as ‘the pig patrol’. It was hoped that by monitoring and recording instances of local police harassment, discrimination and violent force, the law would start defending the Aboriginal community rather than actively assisting in their arbitrary oppression. Within a few months the Redfern activists had collected extensive evidence of arbitrary arrests, beatings, trumped up charges and wrongful accusation. It was clear that the next step would be to fight for Aboriginal access to legal advice and aid.

Australia’s first community legal centre, the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) opened in 1970 and offered free legal aid for the local community. One of the early activities of the ALS was a regular weekend night roster of eminent legal and academic observers to join Aboriginal people at the Empress Hotel and other pubs and help with surveillance activities.

They would attend local hotels at night as observer to confirm claims made by Aboriginal people, and to see whether their presence would deter police abuse and intimidation.

During the early 1970’s priests were called upon in Melbourne to act as observers and to provide a moral deterrence to police violence during the huge anti-Vietnam War moratorium marches. 

The Legal Observer Team formed in Melbourne for the S11 (September 11) protests against the World Economic Forum in 2000 was organised by Pt’chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group was the first in Australia for several decades.  This project trained and fielded over 40 volunteer observers working in shifts over the three days of September 11, 12 and 13.  It worked closely with the S11 Legal Support Group and produced a detailed public report that was released to the media and provided to the State Ombudsman to back up the many complaints received. 

It was soon followed by similar Legal Observer projects in Sydney at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) protests in November 2002. Lawyers and law students from the University of Technology, Sydney  Community Legal Centre, monitored and kepst records of police behaviour during the demonstrations.  They published a report based on a  plethora of witness statements and incident reports taken by the Legal  Observer Team which detailed actions by NSW Police that  consistently and systematically breached protesters’ legal rights during  the two days of protests.

In November 2006, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, Pt’chang and the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne organised a large 30 person Human Rights Observer Team to monitor policing of the protests against the international G20 conference being held in Melbourne that year.  That team also produced a comprehensive public report which detailed the policing and human rights impacts over the three day event that was launched to the media approximately 10 months later.

Photo:  3 Observers at the Brisbane G20 protests in 201

In November 2014, Caxton Legal Centre in Brisbane, Queensland organised an ‘Independent Legal Observer Project’ for that year’s G20 conference during which 50 legal Observers – all of whom were lawyers,  monitored 54 protests conducted by 27 different activist groups over the 5 day event  The project undertook training, liaison with the Queensland Police Service (QPS) and advocated about the climate of fear and anti-protest provision in the G20 Safety and Security Act 2013. 

In October 2011, legal Observers from the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team ‘OMLST’, documented multiple physical injuries sustained in the policing of Occupy Melbourne. The Report ‘Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011 was published one year on from the controversial eviction. OMLST received a Tim McCoy award in 2012 in recognition of its work. 

Its members later formed Melbourne Activist Legal Support or ‘MALS’ as an ongoing all-volunteer organisation that could respond to emerging movements, build and provide resources and provide strong, sustainable legal support infrastructure for movements across Melbourne and Victoria.   MALS now has standing list of over 150 trained observers, runs regular trainings and fields teams at many protests each year.

The goal of a Legal Observer Team is to ensure and enhance the political ‘space’ within which people protest. The highly visible presence of independent citizens helps to ensure that abuses of the civil, legal or human rights of citizens at the hands of police do not go unnoticed. The presence of Legal Observers should reduce the probability of police abuses or may assist in ensuring that arrests are carried out in a less violent way. Legal Observers therefore act as a viable form of deterrence of police violence.

Legal Observers often act for as the eyes and ears of a larger legal team — to observe and record incidents and the activities of law enforcement in relation to the demonstrators.

This includes documenting any arrest, use of force, intimidating display of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and footpaths, and any other behavior on the part of police that appears to restrict activist’s ability to express their political views.

This documentation is done in a thorough and professional manner, so that lawyers representing arrestees or bringing an action against the police will be able to objectively evaluate the lawfulness of police conduct.  Information gathered by Legal Observers  has contributed to defending and advancing the rights of activists in many scenarios. Documentation has also been critical for detailed analysis and reporting on the police actions at protests.  See some of those Legal Observer reports see our Resources page here.

Legal Observers don’t give legal, tactical, or political advice, negotiate with the police for demonstrators, or speak to the media or public on behalf of the protest. We will however speak publicly about police action and about human rights abuses we witness and report afterwards.  Legal Observers are trained not to interfere in arrests but instead take in as much information as possible.

Third-party presence

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As public order policing becomes increasingly paramilitary –by deploying violence and force against groups of unarmed people –so the need for independent Legal Observing and counter-surveillance of police actions becomes more acute.

Legal (or third-party) Observer Teams aim to provide a level of independent and impartial scrutiny at community protests and political events that serves to deter police from using violence against citizens. The deterrence effect of a Legal Observer Team can include the simple effect of being observed, the threat of future civil legal sanctions against police, the reinforcement of existing police accountability mechanisms or the possible application of domestic civil rights or international human rights mechanisms. Legal Observers act as on-the-ground witness’s so that our notes, our photos and out testimony can be used in follow up court action or for complaints against police.  Being a third-party (ie. not one one of the protesters) means that our testimony has more credibility in a court.

Legal Observers wear vests or some form of clear visible identification in order to stand out and to ensure that the police and public notice us. Being visible and being seen is crucial. Legal Observers will often stand so that police will notice our presence.

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Significantly, third-party observation or ‘presence’ can also serve to reduce the level of fear experienced by activists when faced with violent or coercive police responses. The presence of Legal Observers can be reassuring for activists when isolated or fearful of what the police may do.

This reassurance function is less tangible but and important impact of a legal observer presence. In contexts where the legislative and police response to protest is intimidation and overwhelming show of force, the presence of independent third parties dedicated to civil and political rights can be critical.   Both the deterrence effect and the reduction of fear are important objectives of the Legal Observer teams.

Most people are alienated from the law, by obscure legal language, and by the decisions that are made in courts and parliaments. At the same time, protestors are disproportionately targeted by the state and police authorities and disproportionately entangled in the law and criminal justice system.

By providing clear legal information, assisting protestors to give statements and making complaints against police abuses, Legal Observers help people to use the law to assert their civil and political rights, and -in so doing –help give people more control over what happens to them.

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The deterrence impact of Legal Observers is very limited however and can never be relied upon. Horrific abuses and infringements of rights occurs despite the presence of observers.

But the presence of dedicated, trained and identified observers adds to and reinforces, both practically and symbolically, the range of legal, ethical and political constraints on police behaviour which already exist. These constraints, which include international human rights covenants, public and media scrutiny and public opinion, the threat of legal sanctions and civil litigation against individual police, and current Police ethical standards, protocols and standing orders, will not prevent the police nor private agents abuse power nor will they prevent gross violations of people’s rights occurring.

But Legal Observers, by being on the ground and accurately witnessing and documenting abuses, can serve to strengthen the limited effectiveness of these constraints on police behaviour.

For more information about the roles, scope, mandate and skills involved in Legal Observing have a read of our 20 page Legal Observer Handbook(PDF)

NETPOL: Network for Police Monitoring in the United Kingdom have this great guide How to Be a Legal Observer.

Huffington Post ran this article Legal Observers Help Monitor Police which is worth a read too.

Want to try it out?

You don’t have to be a lawyer or legally trained to be a Legal Observer but training in the relevant laws, police powers and observer skills and protocols is important. If you’d like to become a legal observer and you are based in Melbourne then keep an eye out for our next training on our training page. or join our email list.

Anthony Kelly

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

is an independent volunteer group of lawyers, human rights advocates, law students and para-legals. MALS trains and fields Legal Observer Teams at protest events, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and distributes legal resources for social movements. MALS works in conjunction with law firms, community legal centres, and a range of local, national, and international human rights agencies. We stand up for civil and political rights.

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