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Beyond the law: Pink vests holding the line

Beyond the law: Pink vests holding the line

By Karin Derkley

Interviews Legal Biography 


Lawyers play an important role as impartial observers when protests flare.

Amid the charged emotions of the spate of recent protests and rallies in Melbourne, the pink vests of legal observers like Katia Lallo and Matt Wilson are small islands of calm.

The role of legal observers is to stand on the sidelines of protests and rallies to monitor the interactions between police and protestors and ensure they are conducted in as safe and legal a way as possible in this fraught arena.

Both community lawyers, Ms Lallo and Mr Wilson have been involved in dozens of such rallies in the past few years as part of Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s (MALS) team of legal observers – from anti-racism rallies disturbed by far right counter rallies, 26 January Invasion Day rallies, and more recently the many environmental and climate change action protests.

Mr Wilson helped set up MALS after he attended the Occupy Melbourne 2011-2012 protests as an independent legal observer. Disturbed by the often brutal crackdowns on protesters he observed, he saw the need for a more proactive organised approach to monitoring police actions at such events.

“If people are going to be able to exercise their right to political communication, which is fundamental to our society, they need to be able to do that as free as possible from violence,” he says. “It’s important our community can engage in political life by coming out on the streets and voicing their opposition or support for important changes.”

This has become especially important now offences against police involve mandatory sentences, bail conditions have become more stringent, and police are increasingly employing heavy-handed responses such as the use of capsicum spray and police horses to cordon crowds, he says.

Legal observers act as impartial observers. While they might advise protesters and police about their rights and responsibilities, they don’t intervene in actions, Mr Wilson says. “There is a distinction between us and marshals. We don’t tell protestors how to behave but we do advise them about the criminal law as it relates to protest activities.”

Ms Lallo became involved in MALS four years ago after some years volunteering as an Independent Person, sitting in on police interviews with young people under arrest. “That gave me an interest in police accountability and people’s civil rights during interactions with police.”

MALS aims to have a good relationship with all parties at a rally, Ms Lallo says. “We work really professionally. We always introduce ourselves to police and explain our role. They’re aware we are there to document and observe. We’re good at walking that line of holding police to account while also making sure the space is safe for everyone.”

In many cases just the presence of the pink vested legal observers can help keep things calm. On other occasions when things get out of control, such as at the recent IMARC Blockade protests, video recordings made by legal observers can provide important evidence about how incidents have unfolded. 

Both Ms Lallo and Mr Wilson also conduct Know Your Rights training with those planning protest action. “We are mindful of where conduct might be seen by police as a hindrance, so part of our role is to assist people to know what their rights are and also understand where their behaviour might cross the line and amount to criminal conduct,” Mr Wilson says.

Not all legal observers are lawyers. Many are law students, while others come from different walks of life. With training, all can learn the basics of how to go about the role. But lawyers have innate skills in evidence gathering, preparing submissions and assisting in defence when people have been charged, Mr Wilson says.

While the work with MALS comes on top of her workload as a community lawyer, Ms Lallo says she feels an obligation to help defend the rights and safety of people who protest. She also presents community legal education sessions and provides referrals for those arrested.

“As someone who cares about human rights, I like the opportunity legal observing provides to advocate for the right to civil and political dissent and protest. If we turn a blind eye to police force during protest events, we allow a whole raft of laws and practices to come in that slowly limit our freedom to protest.”

MALS has more than 100 legal observers on its books, but more volunteers are always needed, Ms Lallo says. “You need a critical mass of observers to provide support at a protest, because you’re in demand you need to be at a lot of places at once. There’s also always a lot of coordination and background work involved before an event.” 

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Photo: Kenji Wardenclyffe

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