Legal Observer Teams
Legal Observer Teams (LOT) are groups of trained volunteers who observe police and private security officers during protests or demonstrations from civil society.
Legal Observers are also known as Human Rights Observers, and are specially trained to document and report on abuses of police power during protests.
Legal Observer Teams take notes of police operational tactics during protests, monitor for police violence and misconduct, record numbers of police officers present and document how many arrests have been made.
Legal Observers also provide on-site information to activists and the general public about police powers and civil rights when under arrest.
Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) regularly fields Legal Observers to monitor human rights at a wide range of protests, actions, and rallies on environmental and social justice issues. As public order policing becomes increasingly paramilitary—by deploying violence and force against groups of unarmed people—the need for independent Legal Observing and counter-surveillance of police actions becomes more acute.
Legal (or third-party) Observer teams have been used for many decades in places like Northern Ireland, and also more recently in many large-scale demonstrations around the world—including the anti-globalisation protests held in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Washington, London, Melbourne and Sydney.
Legal 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.
This form of 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. Both the deterrence effect and the reduction of fear are important objectives of the Legal Observers Project.
Most people are alienated from the law, obscure legal language, and the decisions that are made in courts and parliaments. At the same time, protesters are disproportionately targeted by the state and police authorities and disproportionately entangled in the law and criminal justice system.
By assisting protesters to give statements and making complaints against police abuses, Legal Observers help people to use the law to assert their rights, and in so doing, help give people more control over their own lives.
If you’re interested in learning more, please see our What is this thing called Legal Observing? post.
Become a Legal Observer
MALS runs regular Legal Observer Training workshops each year. These workshops are aimed at people who are interested in learning the basics of legal observing, how it works, what it can be used for, and why its important for social change activists. Although this training is a requirement for being a Legal Observer with MALS in the future, it is also a great opportunity to get to know the basics of Legal Observing and use these skills in your own organisation.