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Masthead Education - Higher Education

Dealing with student sit-ins

Strike 146x219With the current climate of strikes and further cuts to public services, the number of student sit-ins is again on the rise. Michelle Bendall considers the options for handling them.

Universities will often deal with sit-ins in different ways. Some institutions may welcome students into buildings, allow them to use facilities and give them a platform to air their grievances and support for staff. Others may have to take the difficult decision of ending the sit-in, if necessary by issuing court proceedings. This could be as a result of the type of building being occupied, the length of the occupation and/or the interference with the university's day-to-day business.

Dealing with possible defences

The university will need to comply with the Human Rights Act (HRA), and any students sitting in will be able to refer to the HRA in their defence. There are two rights that are often referred to in this context:

  • Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority
  • The right to protest is covered by Article 11 and this provides that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others

There are some limitations on both articles which allow restrictions to be placed on the exercise of these rights which are:

  • prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society
  • in the interests of national security or public safety
  • for the prevention of disorder or crime
  • for the protection of health or morals
  • for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others

When dealing with this defence, the university will need to show the action taken is proportionate and it will need a clear and robust paper trail in this regard.

It is clear from the case law that it is difficult for students to successfully rely on the HRA in their defence. However the case law also makes clear that the university will need to show that the relief sought is proportionate and reasonable. The university will have to demonstrate that there are appropriate alternative means for the protestors to express their views.

What you can do

The first act of many landowners dealing with protest will be to contact the police. The police have power to act in some circumstances. The Public Order Act has recently been updated and now includes a power allowing the police to impose conditions on a public assembly if the police reasonably believe that it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or the purpose of those organising it is the intimidation of others. However, unless a criminal offence is taking place, the police will normally confirm that the occupation is a civil matter and the university will then need to use civil remedies.

If you are forced to rely on civil remedies, it will be necessary to obtain a court order. This process will usually take 7-10 days but you can act more quickly if there is a real need for urgency and if there is such urgency, an order can be obtained within hours.

Social media can sometimes lead to protests/occupations getting out of hand, either in terms of numbers occupying the building or their activities, which may not be in line with the protest. If the university is concerned about this, it can obtain an injunction to prevent further individuals from entering the building. You can also obtain an injunction to stop the protest from spreading to other parts of the university.

Once you have your court orders, you will then need to enforce: usually by way of High Court Enforcement Officers acting with the police. This will be particularly sensitive and require careful management of any reputational issues.

How you can prepare

  • Ensure you have senior managers who would be authorised to deal with this situation should it ever arise. If legal action is taken, senior managers will need to be available to provide instructions, attend court hearings, sign court papers etc. throughout the process.
  • Consider whether legal action is really necessary in light of the building being occupied, any potential damage to the building, the reputation of the university etc. and keep detailed and clear notes of why you are taking the decisions that you are taking.
  • On a more mundane level, you will need to be able to demonstrate that you are the owner of the property concerned. It is useful to know whether your property portfolio is registered at the Land Registry and if not, you will need to know how to access your deeds.
  • Keep up to date with the external messages being given by the protestors, including on social media. Consider any responses to be made by the university carefully, liaise with your communications team to send out the right message and ensure that staff understand the co-ordinated approach being taken.

Michelle Bendall is a property litigation partner at VWV. She can be contacted on 0117 314 5326 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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