News & Views

A brief & incomplete history of Legal Observing

Independent citizen monitoring of police has a long history but not much has been written about it. For several decades now, community activists, legal workers and movement lawyers have actively opposed police brutality using various means to directly observe, record, and monitor police behaviour.   Locally organised Cop Watch and legal observer initiatives have made a real difference to communities seeking reprieve from relentless police targeting and violence. 

Today’s legal observer projects have learnt a huge amount from these important grassroots initiatives and, in many cases, have built upon them. We all owe a great debt to these activists, legal advocates and organisors who have gone before us.

International

In the United States the Black Panthers were 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. “They would observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred,” film-maker Stanley Nelson said. “What they were really doing was policing the police.

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. 

Photo:  Czech Republic September, 2000, an OPH (Legal Observer Project) Observer at the IMF and World Bank demonstrations

In the 2000’s, legal observer teams were deployed at many large scale global justice demonstrations around the world – including the protests held in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Washington, London, Toronto, Melbourne, and Sydney.  These large protests and policing operations were often characterised by special anti-protest legislation which gave police extraordinary powers, and saw the heavy use of surveillance, exclusionary cordons, non-lethal weapons and police brutality.

Many current legal observer projects operating today gained considerable experience and knowledge during these widespread and dynamic protest events.

Citizen initiated, third party observer and monitoring projects have since become more widespread and more common.   Since starting in Berkeley California in about 1990, locally organised Cop Watch chapters have spread throughout the US, Canada Europe and Australia. Aided by the rise of social media, information-sharing platforms and more accessible video technology,  these community embedded projects often partnered with street outreach and legal rights projects, striving to empower communities to hold police accountable, discourage the illegal use of force or discriminitory stops and to alert, initiate or feed into police accountability or justice campaigns.

Photo:  4 Still from Renowned Films Copwatchers (BBC)

In the United States, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) which both have chapters throughout the country routinely field Legal Observers at protests.

The National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer program was established in 1968 in New York City in response to protests at Columbia University and city-wide antiwar and civil rights demonstrations. The Legal Observer program is now part of a comprehensive system of legal support by the NLG Mass Defense Committee – which is a network of lawyers, legal workers and law students providing legal support for political activists, protesters and movements for social change. 

In the United Kingdom, the Green and Black Cross (GBC) was founded by experienced activists and movement legal workers in November 2010 to provide legal support for protests and run a range of movement support and solidarity projects including a 24/7 Legal Support Helpline, protest kitchens and Legal Observer teams. 

Photo: Keith Gentry. A Green & Black Cross Legal Observer – London UK @GBCLegal

Also in the UK, Network for Police Monitoring or Netpol formed in 2009 as an independent network of grassroots organisations, which works for activists, campaigners and communities by monitoring policing in communities, at festivals and during protests,writing reports and campaigning about oppressive policing such as excessive use of force, data gathering and intimidation of protestors.

Netpol works to monitor public order, protest and street policing, and to challenge and resist policing which is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights. They have also built an inclusive network of activists, campaigners, lawyers and researchers to create a forum for sharing knowledge, experience and expertise. They also work in partnership with community and activist groups that monitor policing within Britain’s racialised and criminalised communities. 

In 2014, the US Chapter of the the global rights organisation Amnesty International dispatched a delegation of observers and organisers to Ferguson, Missouri, to provide direct support to community members and to observe the police response to protests after the police killing of Michael Brown. The 13-person observer mission was the first of its kind deployed by Amnesty within the United States. Amnesty USA later sent teams of Human Rights Observers to the Dakota Access #NoDAPL Pipeline protests in 2016 to monitor the policing of those huge and long-running protests by Indigenous communities.

In about August 2019, In response to the policing of the huge city-wide pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, a group of non-aligned lawyers established the Hong Kong  Neutral Legal Observers Group (HKNLOG) to “uphold and defend the  city’s rule of law”. HKNLOG were set up as a non-political, impartial and  independent group of local lawyers to attend public gatherings as “independent, impartial and dispassionate” observers to provide information (where appropriate) and/or record and  collect evidence of unlawful behaviour in aid of proceedings.

In green vests and with helmets and gas masks to protect against the liberal use of tear gas, about 50 volunteer Legal Observers would attend the protests in shifts, documenting their observations for reports to be published later. They also held public legal rights workshops.

“Our purpose is to observe public gatherings and defend the rule of law,” said one of the conveners of the group, a partner in the Hong Kong office of an international law firm, who asked not to be named out of concern of possible retribution. “We hope that the presence of lawyers might serve as a reminder of how important it is to respect the law and the rule of law.”

From https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/13/volunteers-protecting-hong-kong-protesters

In 2020 in the United Kingdom, the amazing Ife Thompson mobilised a network of mainly black and brown lawyers and barristers to monitor the wave of Black Lives Matter protests.    Observing that at earlier UK Black Lives Matter protest, Green & Black Cross could only send a couple of volunteers she wrote,

“Knowing the UK’s police track record of excessive and discriminatory over-policing of the Black community in the UK, I saw that it was not only vital, but necessary that there were legal observers on the ground at the London #blmprotests that took place in early June.”

– Ife Thompson

In the first week of the UK Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, the Black Protest Legal Support (BPLS) UK were able to bring 100 barristers out as legal observers to monitor the protests. This extraordinary feat was described as a ‘game changer’.  

“We had actual lawyers [rather than lay volunteers], which changed the dynamic.” They could give formal legal advice to protesters in the police kettles – where groups of protesters are effectively cornered by police in a public space. 

A crowd-funding pitch for the new group raised over 70,000 pounds and the group has more than 250 lawyers and barrister in its network.   BPLS is providing free legal advice and representation to UK Black Lives Matter activists and pushing back against intense racialised policing and systemic discrimination using strategic litigation, policy work, legal support and the fielding of legal observer teams at Black Lives Matter and related protests.  

In 2021, four legal observers with BPLS  were arrested at protests and handed fines for breaches of coronavirus regulations. Their arrests promoted a significant legal challenge which argued that observers ought to have been covered by an exemption and that their arrests had been unlawful.  The charges were dropped in May, 2021 with the Metropolitan Police formally accepting the important role of legal observers “in providing independent scrutiny of protests and the policing of protests.”

Legal Observing in Australia

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, inspired by Black Panther patrols in the United States, started monitoring and recording the everyday experience of police brutality and harassment.

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.

From https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_empress_hotel_redfern
Cop-watching or “Pig Patrols’ in Redfern led to the first free ‘shop front’ community legal service being established in Australia.

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 observers to document 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. 

Photo: A Pt’chang Legal Observer at the S11 PROTESTS at Crown Casino, Melbourne, Australia (C) TESS PENI/AUSTRAL INTERNATIONAL

A new Legal Observer Team formed in Melbourne for the S11 (September 11) protests against the World Economic Forum in 2000, organised by the Pt’chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group. It was the first such project in Australia several decades and drew much from overseas examples.  This project trained over 40 volunteer observers who worked in shifts over the three days of September 11, 12 and 13 at Melbourne’s Crown Casino.  The team 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 kept records of police behaviour during the two days of demonstrations.  The legal observer team published a report based on a plethora of witness statements and incident reports taken which detailed actions by NSW Police that consistently and systematically breached protesters’ legal rights during the two days of protests. This team later re-named itself Human Rights Monitors and then later reformed as Sydney Copwatch in 2009.

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.

In 2013, after a spate of abusive strip searches and misconduct by NSW Police during Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras march and festivities, Inner City City Legal Centre set up a police monitoring and advocacy project. This later became FAIR PLAY, a sexuality and gender diverse community initiative to help attendees understand their legal rights and how to keep safe during the Mardi Gras Festival.  Each year FAIR PLAY fields a team of specially trained volunteers who are on site at key Mardi Gras events to share legal and safety information, monitor the operations of police and provide support to people who have been searched or questioned by police. 

In November 2014, Caxton Legal Centre in Brisbane, Queensland organised the ‘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. 

Legal Observers from the Caxton Legal Centre, G20 Protests, Brisbane, Australia 2014

In 2016 and 2017, trained community members from a range of occupations to act as legal observers and document police abuses during the long Beeliar campaign in Western Australia that defended wetlands from road construction. Coordinated by the training and capacity building organisation CounterAct and Beeliar Legal Support Team the project produced a detailed report entitled,  Policing of Beeliar, which documented a series of unlawful assaults, horse tramplings, inappropriate use of force and a culture of violence directed by senior officers.

In 2018, the not-for-profit human rights legal service, the National Justice Project (NJP),  rolled out a Community Education Training program called ‘Copwatch’ which aimed to empower Aboriginal youth to use their smartphones to document police and community interactions safely and lawfully. Although not strictly legal observing, the program consists of community training and education sessions, a down-loadable Copwatch mobile phone app; along with legal research and additional information via the Copwatch website and other channels. It has been successful in bringing several incidents of police abuse to court.  The National Justice Project also trained and fielded Legal Observer Teams at the 2020 Invasion Day protests and Black Lives Matter Protests in Sydney.

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. 

Members of Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (OMLST) after winning the Tim McCoy Award 2012

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.

Marrickville Legal Centre’s Legal Observer team. From left to right: Vasileios, Loren, Mustafa, Osman and Vasili. 6 June 2020

In the last few years, numerous new legal observer projects have emerged.  Amnesty International – Australia has been deploying Human Rights Observer teams upon invitation in Sydney and Melbourne and in Perth.  Counteract has been providing support and training to projects in Perth, Sydney and Brisbane.  

Community Legal Centres NSW, the Marrickville Legal Centre and the National Justice Project all fielded new legal observer teams at 2020’s massive Black Lives Matter Protests in Sydney in June 2020. 

On the 20th August 2020 the national peak body  Community Legal Centres Australia  organised the first national Legal Observer webinar ‘Legal observers: Supporting the right to demonstrate’ (Watch online)

In 2021 there’s even more collaborative work and skill-sharing occurring internationally and across the country building a shared understanding of the model and methods of legal observing as well as strong, supportive links.  


List of currently active Legal Observer groups and projects in Australia

Action Ready

Action Ready is a not-for-profit organisation formed by volunteers in Meanjin (Brisbane) who can provide general legal briefings prior to an action and supporting people take on legal marshal/legal observer roles.  www.actionreadyqld.com  


Amnesty International – Australia

Human Rights Observers (HROs) are Amnesty International trained representatives, who can be deployed to protests, rallies, and other  public situations where there is a significant risk that human rights violations may occur. HROs objectively and impartially observe, document, and report back on incidents that may occur which infringe on  the freedom of association and peaceful assembly.  https://www.amnesty.org.au/human-rights-observers/ 


Fair Play

The Fair Players are specially trained volunteers who are on site at the Mardi Gras Party to share legal and safety information with party-goers, monitor and document the operations of the NSW Police Force and provide support to people who have been searched or questioned by police. http://www.fair-play.org.au/volunteer


Legal Observers NSW

Legal Observers NSW is a growing collective of volunteer lawyers, human rights advocates and law students. We monitor and report on police  action at protests, distribute information about protest rights and facilitate access to legal support. www.legalobserversnsw.org 


Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

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, monitors and  reports on public order policing, provides training and advice to  activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and  distributes legal resources for protest movements.  www.melbactivistlegal.org.au


(Please notify [email protected] if any groups or projects are missing from this list)

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, monitors and reports on policing at activist events, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and distributes legal resources for positive 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 & political rights.
Learn More