Belfast Telegraph

Judges to consider Matt Baggott's appeal against loyalist flag protest ruling

Judgment was reserved today in Chief Constable Matt Baggott's bid to overturn a ruling that police wrongly facilitated illegal and violent loyalist flag protest marches.

During a three-day hearing at the Court of Appeal in Belfast lawyers for the PSNI argued that the findings were flawed and unfair.

A panel of senior judges, led by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, will now consider all submissions before reaching a verdict.

The appeal was fast-tracked due to its operational importance for how police deal with any contentious parades over the summer marching season.

Earlier this year police chiefs came under scathing judicial criticism for how they responded to weekly demonstrations from east Belfast following a decision in December 2012 to restrict the flying of the Union flag at City Hall.

Judicial review proceedings were taken by a nationalist resident identified only as DB who claimed his Short Strand home came under attack by protestors.

A High Court judge ruled in April that the commander in charge of the operation around the protests misdirected himself in believing he was hampered by law from stopping the parades and arresting participants.

During the period in question police did not behave proactively in relation to prosecuting those organising and participating in the parades, he found.

According to his assessment Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr did not appear to have fully appreciated that an un-notified parade has the same status as one which takes place in defiance of a Parades Commission determination.

He also described the policing operation at that time as being characterised by "unjustified enforcement inertia".

But senior counsel for the PSNI argued that the findings were undermined by both the level of resources deployed to deal with troublemakers and the decision to bring charges against passive demonstrators.

Tony McGleenan QC also insisted police chiefs were fully aware they had the power to stop any illegal union flag protest marches.

He set out how a decision had been made to block the earliest of the parades.

Plans only changed after intelligence revealed loyalist paramilitary involvement in associated violence which could pose a risk to life.

The police attitude was public safety first, criminal justice consequences later, the court heard.

Part of the PSNI's case depended on previous rulings how the force dealt with disorder during the Holy Cross Primary School dispute in Ardoyne, north Belfast back in 2001.

Domestic and European courts endorsed the police handling of that situation, declaring that they should have some discretion in public order situations with the potential to spread.

But Karen Quinlivan QC, for DB, argued that there were key differences between the two situations, claiming the PSNI undermined the will the Parliament when it brought in laws specifically to deal with marches.

She also challenged assertions about police being ready to block the first parade, submitting that there was no evidence of any intelligence assessment around ensuing processions.

Following the completion of arguments Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justice Girvan and Mr Justice Weir, reserved judgment in the appeal.

He said: "We want to reflect carefully on all the submissions."

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