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Legal Context of Activism

This site is for people who are trying to create positive changes in their lives and communities. The resources on this site are for both new and experienced activists, campaign organisers and legal support workers and lawyers.

For accurate legal information

At some point, most activists come up against the police or the legal system. Whether you want to set up a stall, put up a poster, hold a rally or blockade a building you may need to deal with the police or legal system. The gap between what is ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ is often vague and is always changing.

Fear of the legal consequences too often prevents people from taking action for social change. It is important that everyone has access to information about their rights and the law as it stands in order to make informed decisions.

Because we have rights

No discussion of activist legal rights is valid without acknowledging the centuries of Aboriginal struggle against genocide and severe political and legal repression in Australia.

All activists in Australia today owe a huge debt to the Aboriginal activists who, throughout our history, fought for basic human rights, social, legal and political change. Aboriginal people were the first of us in Australia to face the full force of English 'common law'.

In fact, most of the important rights, privileges and freedoms we enjoy in Australia today are due to the courageous actions of countless activists in our history.

In Australia, we do have a right to protest. However, many of these rights are not respected automatically or at all, unless we assert them and insist on them. This site is deigned to help you do that.

To help build resilience

Dissent, protest and social change are often seen as essential to a healthy, democratic society. But, as we know, from history and from the experience of activists around the world, governments, police forces and institutions such as courts and prisons can often be used to stop, prevent and repress people who seek to change or challenge the status quo. This is why an activist legal rights website is important.

Resources have been drawn from around the world and from our own experience here in Australia to help activists, organisers and legal workers to better support activists facing the police and legal system.

Ultimately, our aim is to help Australian activist networks and movements face the police and legal system, to build resilience against repression and to keep working for a better world.

What is legal support?

This site contains resources and information to help activist campaigners and legal workers provide effective activist legal support.

There are three core aspects of activist legal support:

  • information
  • support
  • solidarity


It is vital that activists have access to accurate legal information about their rights and the consequences of their actions and activities. Providing clear and accurate legal information is best done by progressive lawyers but can be distributed by organisers or legal support teams.


This website hopes to support activists and also to provide resources for campaigners and legal support teams to help develop effective activist legal support.

Activist legal support can include many things:

  • providing legal information
  • legal briefings prior to actions
  • activist legal training and workshops
  • arrest support
  • support and solidarity tactics whilst in custody
  • debriefing after actions
  • debriefing after arrests
  • legal support teams
  • legal representation
  • long-term court support
  • prison support


Solidarity is looking after each other when facing the police or legal system. 'Legal Solidarity' describes a set of activist tactics to support and protect people when they are being held in police custody, in jail or facing court.

Individual and collective tactics of non-cooperation can be used to protect targeted or vulnerable people in the campaign, meet demands and maintain the combined strength of activists after arrests occur.

Legal solidarity tactics have been used effectively for decades in the civil rights, peace, environmental, and in the global justice movements in Australia.

Go to the activist Legal support section of this site for more information and resources.

What is an activist?

Activists are people who seek to create positive change. But not all people who work for change define themselves as activists.

A person who speaks out at their workplace about unsafe practices, or somebody who refuses to buy a tram ticket as a personal protest against privatisation, may not see themselves as activists, yet these actions could be seen as political 'activism'.

It is important to go beyond the stereotypes of activistism that are often deliberately generated to discredit and marginalise people who protest. This site recognises that activism includes the positive and courageous actions of ordinary people in their daily lives.

Activists may be forming radical co-operatives, working within universities and schools to educate others, working through the legal system or government to create institutional changes, maintaining cultural practices and music as an act of resistance, developing national and international networks and forming alliances across movements.

Activists may be students, residents, trade unionists, Aboriginal rights campaigners, environmentalists, lesbian and gay campaigners, peace and social justice workers; they may work in funded non-government organisations (NGOs), in grassroots affinity groups or autonomous networks, in political parties or lobby groups, in local resident associations or in a trade union.

This website will be of value to all activists and is created in the spirit of solidarity and common ground between all people working for a free, just and sustainable society.

Read about the experiences of other activists in the Case studies section.

Activists not criminals

Importantly, this website recognises that activists are people who want to create positive and peaceful change. Activists are not violent, anti-social or criminals. Although there are diverse perspectives on activist tactics and how to create real change, activists are not violent people. Nor do activists willingly create violence. Overwhelmingly, activists work to prevent or reduce violence in society and work in ways to minimise harm to people.

We need to remember that the police and state institutions such as the prison system have a monopoly on the 'legitimate' use of force and that movements for change in Australia are overwhelmingly peaceful and nonviolent.

Labeling people who break the law as 'deviant', 'evil', 'anti-social' and different to ordinary law-abiding citizens is part of the social control functions of the criminal justice system. In the same way, activists are often labeled or associated with the terms 'criminal' or 'terrorist'. The labeling of certain activists as 'violent' or terrorist' is a part of efforts to discredit and undermine support for social change and is often used to justify legal repression and police violence.

On the contrary, activists are most often principled people who are concerned about the issues that affect themselves and others and reflect the diversity of the Australian community.

Read about the experiences of other activists in the Case studies section.

See also: Policing Political Protest

Lawful or unlawful

"I support your right to protest, as long as you don't break the law"

Many activists hear this statement from police, politicians or even friends and family when planning a protest or direct action.

This supposed support for the right to protest, as long as it is lawful, assumes that in Australia we have sufficient political space for us to protest in. However, the criminal law throughout Australia encompasses a huge range of offences that can be used against activists if the police or government choose. How much political space we actually have depends on a range of factors.

When it comes to public protests or political actions, what is lawful and unlawful is often very confusing and is always changing as new laws are introduced and old laws re-applied or changed.

Although legal workers can provide advice about what the law says and what charges are possible, the way in which police and government apply and use the law is always changing. Whilst the police may stand by when activists chalk on the road during one protest, they may arrest people at a different protest for doing the same thing.

Seemingly innocuous activities such as honking your horn as you drive past a picket or weaving ribbon through a wire fence have been interpreted as offences in Australia.

When activists camp on public land at, or near the site of a protest; police may use local council powers, even when no issue of trespass arises. Police, using an archaic council by law, charged activists handing out leaflets at the picket of the NIKE sports store in Melbourne.

When existing laws are not adequate to restrict activists or stifle our ability to protest, a new law has been created, sometimes specifically to deal with a particular protest. The famous Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, and an East Timor solidarity protest outside an Indonesian Consulate are clear examples of this. The law of trespass has been changed a number of times in response to forest protests in Tasmania (Brown 1992) Although some activists may knowingly break laws, or engage in deliberate civil disobedience, not all activists deliberately seek to break the law.

Those who do so often consider and weigh up the costs and consequences of unlawful action carefully and make clear choices.

See also Should I be arrested?

Even activists who go to great lengths to stay within the law can sometimes come face to face with the police. Laws can be used against activists in order to control or stifle protest and dissent even when there is no intention by activists to break the law.

It is not the case that activists are criminals. It is the legal system getting in the way of social change. Read about the experiences of other activists,

See also Case studies section.

Criminalising political dissent

‘Criminalising dissent’ is the process of making activists appear as criminals or, making protest action illegal.

Australia has a history of introducing new and repressive laws to ban actions by Aboriginal activists, trade unionists, gays and lesbians, peace and social justice activists and environmentalists. These laws are used to criminalise previously lawful actions and allow the police to repress or control these actions.

Trends towards restrictions on free speech and peaceable assembly in Australia are deeply disturbing. It is particularly important in times of conflict or uncertainty that the voices of the people are able to inform decisions being contemplated by government.

Dissent, dialogue and even disagreement are the cherished hallmarks of democracy and should be welcomed and encouraged. To take the position that different voices, thoughts, ideas and options cannot be heard on critical issues of society or government decision-making suggests that those government decisions cannot survive discussion or scrutiny.

Dissension and discussion during times of crisis or war should not be discouraged, nor should society or government cast aspersions on those who exercise their right to dissent.

Dissent in society is also 'criminalised' by the mainstream media, the statements of politicians and the views of ordinary people in society who, because an activist is getting arrested, see them only as a criminal.

The historical construction of criminal laws to protect capital and private property relations is also relevant to the issue of activism. Much of our legal system is based around laws that protect the rights and privileges of those who own property or manage wealth.

It is a common view that the criminal justice system, despite reforms over this century, still works to the advantage of those with substantial wealth and privilege rather than protecting our rights to work for change.

See also Police tactics at protests and Activists are not criminals

Civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is the deliberate and conscious refusal to obey, or violation of, a law believed to be unjust. Civil disobedience has a long history and has played an important role in many activist traditions.

The deliberate violation of laws has played a crucial part in Australian activist history. The Aboriginal land rights and civil rights movement, union struggles for wages and the eight hour day, women's campaigns for the vote, and the modern peace, social justice and environmental movements have all been affected. Hundreds of people have been arrested in large civil disobedience actions throughout Australia at many protests against US bases, uranium mines, asylum seeker detention centres and blockades of old growth logging operations.

A famous and influential theorist of civil disobedience in the western world was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax and spent one night in jail. He argued that the tax supported slavery and the aggressive US war against Mexico, both of which he opposed.

Thoreau's essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless other activists.

He said,

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much for the right Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. . . the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law."

The argument that the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law is central to all civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience on the individual level tries to influence by example. The peace activist who refuses to obey a ‘Keep Out' sign at a military base may hope that others will oppose militarism or war in their own ways after witnessing this civil disobedience.

Sometimes the civil disobedience is aimed at challenging or undermining the authority of a particular law, such as when Aboriginal and non-aboriginal activists deliberately broke racist segregation laws during the Freedom Rides in the 1960's. Public displays of outright defiance of a law served to delegitimise the repressive law, undermine public acceptance of it and encourage others to oppose it.

Ultimately civil disobedience can aim to influence public and institutional opinion in order to change the unjust law or abolish the unjust policy. In theory, civil disobedience focuses on the law itself and not on the police who enforce it. In its most sophisticated form, civil disobedience seeks to undermine support for the law even within the police, courts and legal system.

Civil disobedience can also aim to "clog the machine" (in Thoreau's phrase) with political prisoners; to get into court where activists can challenge the constitutionality of a law; to put an end to your personal complicity in the injustice which flows from obedience to unjust law - or some combination of these.

Direct action

‘Direct action' is a term that is often misunderstood.

To act directly is to address the actual issue of your concern. If you're working against hunger, it might be simply giving someone a meal. If you're working against homelessness, it might be taking over an abandoned house and making it habitable. If you want to stop military spending, it might be refusing to pay your income taxes.

Direct action differs from symbolic protest action, which is lobbying someone in authority to change his or her policies. An advantage to direct action is that it doesn't require the cooperation of the authority to be effective.

If the police or authorities intervene to stop your action, you are able to expose the injustice; if they ignore you, you have acted against the injustice and can continue following it further.

Since the action in itself has a direct effect, it has a power and strength. In practice, the most effective actions are both direct and symbolic.

Civil disobedience is often carefully planned and can lead to severe legal consequences. It is often a highly effective and high profile part of a direct action campaign. By itself, civil disobedience is not a strategy, but a tactic that can form an important part of many campaigns and movements for change.

Is civil disobedience justified?

Many people have argued that civil disobedience cannot be justified in a democracy. If democratic processes can change unjust laws then the existence of lawful channels of change makes civil disobedience unnecessary. Others believe that some issues of injustice are so urgent or deeply embedded in society that lawful channels cannot or will not respond. What do you think?

If you are considering civil disobedience look at the training role play Should I get arrested?

Read about the experiences of other activists in Case studies section.

Role of police in society

The police, along with the military, represent the coercive arm of the state. In Australia the police are operationally independent of the government. This means that although the government is responsible for the police budget, the legislation that creates the laws under which police operate and for appointing the Chief Commissioner, the police decide how they will go about their various duties (Finnane 1994: 31-38).

The separation of powers between the police and government is considered an important tenet of liberal democracy. The separation of powers assists in ensuring that the police are not used in a partisan political way to harass and punish political opponents and dissidents. There is also a separation of roles and powers between the courts and the police. It is the police role to bring suspected offenders before the courts and the courts' role to decide on guilt or innocence and, in the case of conviction, decide on punishment.

The police have various roles. Officially, the core functions of the police include enforcing the law, keeping the peace and protecting life and property. In carrying out these functions the police have a broad discretion. How police discretion is used and how the various police roles are prioritised will have an impact on the policing of political protests. Strict adherence to enforcing the law at a protest, for example, might involve mass arrests for minor offences. Such mass arrests will inevitably impact on police resources and might undermine capacity to undertake other police functions. Mass arrests might be perceived as provocative by an otherwise peaceful crowd, escalate conflict and lead to breaches of the peace that might threaten life and property.

A hard or uncompromising attitude to protests prioritises enforcing the law regardless of the consequences for keeping the peace, whereas a more conciliatory style of policing political protest generally prioritises keeping the peace. When keeping the peace is prioritised police will generally only make arrests in a protest situation where the offences are serious and on balance the risk to life and property in not making the arrest outweighs the risk to life and property associated with making the arrest.

In democratic states, policing should comply with the law, be accountable and respect human rights.

Australia does not have a bill of rights but the right to protest is set out in the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights. The right to protest is also recognised as an important part of Australia's social traditions and is now a part of Victorian and ACT legislation through the enactment of Charters of rights.

For more information about police powers and your rights see:

Police powers & your rights

Your Charter rights

For more information about police accountability see:

Civilian Oversight of Police (Australian Institute of Criminology) PDF

Policing political protests

The policing of political protests is one of the most political and controversial aspects of the police role. The approach that police take to a particular protest or protest movement is likely to have a profound impact on the way the activists and the cause they represent are publicly perceived as well as the practical outcomes of the protest and the welfare of individuals involved.

One of the fundamental differences between liberal democracies and more totalitarian societies is that liberal democracies are more tolerant of dissent and protests. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, treat all dissent and protest as criminal. In totalitarian or authoritarian states the police display a consistently repressive and frequently violent approach towards dissent and protests.

In Australia the police attitude towards activists and dissent has varied markedly over time and between different protest movements and protest events. Protests regularly take place with little or no tension between police and activists. On these occasions there is likely to be liaison, communication and negotiation between police and protest organisers and police may assist in facilitating the protest by, for example, managing traffic along the route of a march.

However, there are many examples both throughout history and in contemporary times of police behaving in a repressive and violent manner towards protesters (Barry 1987; McCulloch 2001: Ch 2 McCulloch, J Lawson 2000; Finnane 1994: 52-59).

It is important for activists to understand the role of the police in relation to political protests and the type of factors that influence the response of police to particular protests and protest movements. This section describes the various functions of police in society and how these relate to the policing of political protest. It also sets out two competing perspectives on the role of police in society and how these perspectives assist in illuminating the history of policing and understanding contemporary trends in policing.

One perspective considers police as basically a politically neutral force that acts primarily to enforce the law and protect the public. The other more radical perspective considers police as a repressive force that is instrumental in the maintenance of an unjust social system. This section also sets out to explain the type of tactics police have used when policing protests and to analyse the type of factors that influence the police response to protests.

Also see Police tactics at protests

Social contract vision

The power of police and their mandate to use force against citizens is justified under the social contract vision of society. This theory views the police use of force as necessary to maintain order and maximise collective good by maintaining a safe and workable society. Under social contract theory citizens are understood to voluntarily surrender some of their power and rights and delegate them to the state and to the police force. The police are seen as a politically neutral force that uses its powers to enforce the laws within the confines of a defined set of rules.

The social contract theory of policing informs mainstream views of policing, which see police as a protective force against crime and social disorder. Given the widespread belief in the social contract theory of police and the partisan nature of media reporting, the general public is often uncritically supportive of police behaviour even where such behaviour involves high levels of force and coercion. Police violence against protesters will often be seen as legitimate even where it goes beyond the bounds of reasonable force.

As mentioned above, however, there are many examples of repressive policing of protests both in Australia and other western countries which suggest that the social contract theory is not adequate in explaining the nature of the police role in relation to political protests.

Radical analysis

A radical analysis of the police role posits that police are primarily utilised by the government, and powerful interests, to suppress dissent, stifle protest and to help maintain the status quo (Scraton 1985; McCulloch 2001: Chp 2).

Within this framework the state is not seen as neutral or above the different powerful sectional interest groups, such as corporations, military, and business leaders. Instead the state is seen to function to preserve, maintain and extend the powers of the dominant groups in society to protect the interests of the powerful over and above those of the less powerful. Within this the police act as one of the more important institutions of social control.

The grassroots protest movements of the 1960s and the 1970s in Australia, the United States and Europe led to confrontations between the newly mobilised middle classes of western society and the police. These clashes, during the anti Vietnam war demonstrations, anti nuclear or anti uranium mining, Aboriginal land and women's' rights actions, prompted an unprecedented questioning of the role of police in society and demands for higher levels of police accountability that continue today (Goldsmith & Lewis 2000).

Whatever framework you bring to the understanding of the role of police in society there is no doubt that they are a powerful force. The police enjoy a high level of public legitimacy and along with the military have a virtual monopoly on legitimate force combined with an array of weapons and tactics that provide the potential for coercion and repression.

Police will inevitably be present at protests. To maximise the effectiveness of protest and avoid the negative consequences of repressive policing we need to understand the tactics that police commonly use and the factors that influence the type of police tactics and attitudes.

Police tactics at protests

Police have a great deal of discretion in the way they deal with protests. Police do not mechanically enforce the law and will often ignore minor breaches of the law.

Enforcing the law actually makes up a small proportion of police action at protests. Police are also aware of civil disobedience and its use as a political tactic and will sometimes not arrest to undermine the political meaning generated by arrest and subsequent court and legal processes.

Police often play a careful and strategic role at protests, which is most often designed to maintain control (Alderson 1998; Della Porta and Reiter 1998). Having said that, police often make mistakes, misinterpret the situation and choose highly ineffective tactics.

There are four very common police approaches to controlling protest actions:

  1. Negotiation and directives - Commands, orders, threats, bluff or negotiations
  2. Accommodation - Standing by and watching
  3. Containment - Fences, barriers, police lines, horses etc.
  4. Use of Force and the Law - Arrest, force, use of weapons and violence

See also:

The material in the following section was compiled by Anthony Kelly and used the following references:

Alderson, J (1998) Principled Policing: Protecting the Public with Integrity , Winchester: Waterside Press

Baker, D (1998) Trade unionism and the policing accord: control and self-regulation of picketing during the 1998 maritime dispute' Labour and Industry no 9 vol 3 pp. 123-144

Barry, B (1987) Baiting the Tiger: Police and protest during the Vietnam War' in (ed) Finnane, M Policing in Australian Historical Perspectives , Kensington, New South Wales: New South Wales University Press

Della Porta, D & Reiter, H (1998) Policing Protest: The control of mass demonstrations in Western democracies , Minnesota: Minnesota University Press

Ericson & Doyle (1999) Globalization and the policing of protest: the case of APEC' British Journal of Sociology vol 50 no 4 pp. 589-608

Kelly,A, et al, (2007) Human Rights Observer Team Final Report: G20 Protests, Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) Inc

Gillham, P & Marx, G (2000) Complexity and irony in policing and protesting: the World Trade Organisation in Seattle Social Justice vol . 27 no. 2 pp. 212-236

Goldsmith, A & Lewis, C (eds) (2000) Civilian Oversight of Policing: Governance, democracy and human rights Oxford: Hart

Lawson, D (2000) Copping it at S11 Overland no 161 pp.14-16

Jefferson, T (2000) The Case Against Paramilitary Policing , Open University Press: Milton Keyes

McCulloch, J (2001) Blue Army: Paramilitary policing in Australia Carlton: Melbourne University Press

McCulloch, J (2000) Capsicum spray: safe alternative or dangerous chemical weapon? Journal of Law and Medicine Feb 2000 vol 7 pp. 311-24

McCulloch, J & Clayton, M (1996) Victoria on the Move! Move! Move! Alternative Law Journal pp. 103-108

Scraton, P (1985) The State of the Police, London and Sydney: Pluto Press

Victoria Police Manual General Category – Operations Topic – Public Order VPM Instruction 107-1 Crowd control


This approach involves the police standing back, maintaining a watchful presence but allowing the protest to continue without intervention.

Often police will even assist or facilitate a march or rally by managing traffic like they would for a parade or other public event. Police may negotiate with third parties affected to simply let the protest happen.

At small actions, even ones that involve potentially unlawful actions, police may decide it is easier to stand by and watch than to intervene. This depends on the length of the protest, the level of disruption to others, police resources and the political climate surrounding the action.

It is often the case that this is easier than options below and will avoid escalating conflict. Accommodation recognises that police intervention can have a destabilising effect and lead to disorder at an otherwise peaceful protest.

Sometimes police will maintain a low-key visible presence but have a larger contingent of police or police horses out of sight nearby. It is useful to take note of the level of visible and hidden police presence as the situation and police tactics could change rapidly.

Negotiation & directives

This approach involves a range of friendly and not-so-friendly meetings before and during a protest action aimed at controlling, changing, or affecting the nature of the event and outcome of the action. The policing of the 1998 maritime dispute is a very good example of this type of policing (Baker 1999).

Police may politely request that activists stick to the footpath, move from an area or move a stall, for instance. Sometimes these requests or directives might be made with the implied threat of arrest if the request/directive is not obeyed. The threat to arrest, in the event that the request/directive is not obeyed, might be followed through or might simply be a bluff. It is often difficult to know in advance and ultimately police tactics will be influenced by a variety of factors (also see Why police choose certain approaches). Directives are often aimed at police maintaining control over a protest action.

Police can approach individual activists and make requests or give directives. This often proves an effective way to control a protest. Understanding police techniques is valuable and learning to assert your rights when requested to do something by police is an important activist skill.

It can be valuable and useful to engage in liaison with or negotiate with police if you are aware of the potential pitfalls. However police liaison can be very difficult and intimidating.

Also see


Containment includes a range of common police tactics such as creating barricades or walls of police to prevent activists getting to an area, separating activists or keeping them contained in one small area.

At the September 2000 protest against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, Crown Casino was surrounded by a long concrete and wire fence to prevent activists getting close to the Forum venue. At recent large marches and rallies in Europe and the USA police have used well fortified containment areas to fence or blockade activists into areas well away from the target of protest action.

At the 'Stop Star Wars' national protests at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory in 2002, police used intensive containment lines to control activist movements. Police used three highly disciplined lines of police to prevent activists approaching the main gates to the Pine Gap base.

Lines of police horses can also be used to contain or separate activists. Long lines of police officers can deter and prevent activists from getting inside an area, or building, and can effectively limit the protest. It also means that in order for activists to protest or intervene in a particular building or event, conflict can become centred on the police lines.

No-protest zones

No protest or ‘exclusion’ zones are a relatively new police tactic. In 2001, in light of large global justice protests taking place around the world, the United States government proposed enclosing more than 40 city blocks of Washington, D.C. with 2 miles of 3-metre high fencing and concrete, and banning all peaceful protest and assembly near the White House or the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings.

This proposal was later abandoned, however many large global justice protests have met 'no-protests zones' (see, Ericson & Doyle 1999; Gillham & Marx 2000 for description and analysis of policing of two global justice protests).

In 2001, police in Victoria created a huge exclusion zone surrounding the Crown casino district in Melbourne for the 3 days of protests against the world economic forum using water filled road barriers and cyclone fencing. In 2006 during the G20 meetings, police used road barriers to block off entire streets and prevent protests getting close to the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne’s central business district. The road closures and temporary barriers around the Grand Hyatt Hotel, backed by lines of police officers effectively prevented people from protesting within sight or earshot of the visiting G20 dignitaries and representatives.

The Victoria Police Manual chapter on public order events suggests that barriers are a preventative measure and suggests police to set up barriers as soon as possible. “Early occupation [by protesters] of proposed sites may develop into a crowd control situation. If used, erect and staff barriers before the participants assemble.”

The use of area-denial methods such as barricades remains controversial. Where police use their powers to conceal a protest from view, this can amount to denial of the right to protest. A protest that is made ineffectual is likely to negate rather than limit the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, as well as the right to freedom of expression.  Any restriction on the right of peaceful assembly must be demonstrably justified by reference to one or more of the objectives listed in Article 21 of the ICCPR itself, or it will be unlawful.

In September 2007, NSW police enforced a very large “exclusionary zone” surrounding the Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation summit (APEC) meeting in Sydney.  

Protest 'Pens' or ‘Kettling’

A police pen, (using barricades to pen protestors into particular zones to prevent dispersal and breakaway marches) was used during the eviction of Occupy Melbourne from the City Square in Melbourne on 15 October 2011.  Police had contractors erect high temporary fencing around the City Square in order to prevent people joining those inside and to maintain control of the area whilst they forcibly evicted protestors and removed the tents etc inside.  People were allowed out of the pen but were not permitted back in. The fencing was also surrounded by a large physical cordon by police who served to control access.

‘Kettling’ is a similar tactic used in the United Kingdom and United States which has been an ongoing source of tension between demonstrators and police.  Essentially police used a variety of physical barriers and police cordons (rows of police) to surround a protest and keep people inside that cordon. Kettling can be used to severely restrict people’s freedom of movement, enclosing large groups of people in certain sections of a road or a public space.

Police may let people leave the area at times, however they may not permit people to re-enter the area. This means that people at a rally, who wish to go across the road for a coffee or to use the toilet, will not be able to return to the rally.  In this way, kettling serves to deny people their basic right to peaceful assemble.

The New York Civil Liberties Union report ‘Arresting Protest’ highlighted the misuse of protest pens at the February 15, 2003 anti-war rally, and it is clear that this practice has continued despite a US court order to the contrary.

Also see NYC Justice Corps

Use of force & the law

Application of law

Police tend to enforce the law if and when it suits their aims of maintaining or restoring control over a protest. As mentioned in the introduction to this section, police do not mechanically enforce the law and will often ignore minor breaches.  People who toot their car horns in support when they drive past a picket are committing an offence but this will generally be ignored by police attending the picket.

However, police can sometimes utilise minor offences to control or harass activists. For instance, police may conduct detailed roadworthy checks on protester’s cars on their way to a forest blockade.

Police may use particular offences to target particular activists. For instance, particular activists at a large rally may be picked out and charged if they are known to police.  The application of the law can also be applied in a discriminatory way. Members of the movement who are of a particular cultural or ethnicity, or perceived to be by police, may be targeted.

While protest actions may involve breaches of the law, police response to protesters should be strictly within the law. When police claim to enforce the law by breaking it their moral authority is undermined. Protesters who break the law are still entitled to the protection of the law. Where police break the law by, for example, using excessive force to arrest or disperse protesters legal remedies, such as civil actions or formal complaints that might lead to disciplinary action should be pursued. See Complaints against the police section.

Theoretically individual police could also be subject to charges for assault if they use excessive force against protesters. In reality this is unlikely to happen because the police organisation itself is the 'gatekeeper' of the criminal justice system and it is unlikely that the organisation will lay charges.

In order to make the police accountable to the law for their actions at protests it is important that the identity of individual officers involved in incidents be recorded. This is sometimes difficult where police remove their badges and when riot helmets with visors obscure their faces.

Use of arrest "snatch squads"

Police may use their power of arrest strategically. Arrests at demonstrations may be targeted towards people whom police have identified as ‘leaders' or ‘agitators’. In this way, police aim to remove certain people from the action to undermine the action by a strategic application of the law.

The police sometimes use ‘arrest teams' or 'snatch squads' to pick out and arrest identified people from a crowd of activists. Police may use horses or batons to force the crowd away and literally 'snatch' a person suddenly and take them physicality behind police lines.


Police may choose to disperse a crowd rather than arrest individual members. Dispersal may be achieved by way of batons, horses or physical force such as pushing and dragging. Police may opt for dispersal when they don't have the facilities or the resources to engage in mass arrests. Dispersal tactics sometimes appear to be designed to punish protesters, which is legally outside the role of the police.

Dispersals are less targeted than arrests and may impact on people who are only marginally involved in protest activity. Dispersals generally involve higher levels of overall force than arrests.

In addition to taking action to prevent a 'breach of the peace', police may have the situation declared as a riot by having a Magistrate read aloud the riot proclamation. This is an extremely rare occurrence.

Use of ‘reasonable force'

In many circumstances, police are legally empowered to use 'reasonable force' in executing their powers. This includes the power of arrest, the power to take finger prints and forensic samples and the power to detain. Police also now have the power to use capsicum spray and in some instances stun guns to restrain people who are violent or threatening violence.

See Police Powers and your rights.

What is 'reasonable force'? This depends upon the circumstances. A good guide is that the police are entitled to use whatever force the average person would accept as necessary and proportionate in the circumstances. The greater the physical threat to the police, the greater force it may be acceptable to use to detain a person.

'Reasonable force' does not include assaulting people on arrest, arbitrary use of hand-cuffs or verbal intimidation.

Ultimately, the courts decide what constitutes reasonable force when police action is challenged. In circumstances where there are a large number of protesters engaged in resolute civil disobedience police may choose not to arrest, or only arrest selected protesters. They could also engage in mass arrests or use dispersal tactics.

If mass arrests are beyond the capacity of police, such as where police are outnumbered by civilly disobedient activists, police can either tolerate the breach of the law or disperse using force. Whether police choose to tolerate or disperse is likely to depend on the type of factors outlined below.

Excessive and unlawful levels of violence by state security forces remains one of the primary impediments to civil and political rights throughout the world. It is incumbent upon police in Australia to demonstrate that as institutions they are capable of managing politically motivated demonstrations without recourse to actions that contravene fundamental human rights.

See Why do police choose certain approaches?.

Pressure point holds

According to Victorian police guidelines, police must not use nerve pressure points above the shoulder level as a control technique in crowd control situations due to the risk of death or serious injury. A range of physical pain compliance techniques are routinely used by Victoria police however such as wrist and arm holds. All such holds are a use of force and should only be used when considered ‘reasonable’. 

Use of non-lethal weapons

Police in Victoria have an array of 'non-lethal' repressive technology at their disposal which may be used to control, prevent or disperse demonstrations. Special police units such as the Force Response Unit often receive specialised training in particular weapons and may be called in at particular actions. There are guidelines for the use of such weaponry which theoretically mitigate against their use in dangerous, inappropriate or illegal ways.


Long-side handled batons have been used by police at various demonstrations in Victoria including against a community picket line at the Richmond Secondary Collage in 1993 and at the protests against the World Economic Forum in September 2000.  Their use has been curtailed due to complaints and community condemnation but they are still available to special units.  Advice to Victoria Police from the Office of Forensic Medicine and contained in the Victoria Police Defence Tactics - Operational Survival Instructions makes clear that the use of batons is potentially hazardous and blows to the person in areas of high risk are unpredictable and should be avoided. The areas to avoid are stated as being the head, face, and front of neck, back of neck, abdomen, kidney region and spinal region.

Capsicum spray

Capsicum spray uses capsaicin, the active chemical ingredient in chillies or capsicums, to incapacitate people exposed to it. Although police guidelines restrict its use to protecting life and controlling violent people, police in NSW and South Australia have used it at peaceful demonstrations.

Capsicum spray poses a particular danger to people with asthma and heart problems. It only works if inhaled and/or sprayed in the eyes. If police use any sort of gas or spray, protect your mouth and eyes with some cloth material and keep asthma medication within reach. The most effective first aid for capsicum spray is prolonged dousing of face and eyes with water. Make sure you know where to go for first aid (for more information on capsicum spray see McCulloch 2000).


Police have used horses against activists throughout history. The Police Mounted Branch often is seen at protests, marches or rallies in Melbourne. They are commonly used to push groups of activists away to clear an area or as containment lines to prevent access. As a form of crowd-control they can be an extremely dangerous and unwieldy tool.

When you are conducting police liaison meetings, always stress that horses should not be used at the protest for this reason.

The presence of a horse amongst activists creates a sense of alarm as hard feet look for purchase amongst human limbs and horse flanks batter the crowd. Like all Police, mounted Police have tools such as batons at their disposal.

Public opinion is very hostile to suggestions that protesters have caused injury or harm to police horses. Police sometimes maintain that protesters have used pins or marbles against horses. Whether these claims are true or not they undermine the legitimacy of protests and are seen to justify a harsh police response.

Why do police choose certain approaches?

The tactics that police use at a protest action will depend on a wide range of factors.

These include, in no particular order, the:

  • The political climate in which the protest is taking place. If the government and other political elites are hostile to the protesters and their cause police are more likely to take a harsh and uncompromising attitude towards the protesters.
  • Any subtle or overt political pressures on the police command. Although police in theory are operationally independent from government the attitude of the government to protesters is likely to influence police.
  • Police training . Police training in relation to protests will influence the approach taken to protesters. If police training emphasises human rights, the paramount duty of police to keep the peace and the importance of communication and negotiation, the attitude to protesters is likely to be relatively tolerant. If, on the other hand, police training implies that protesters are akin to insurgents or terrorists and that crowds are inherently dangerous, and concentrates or tactical issues related to riot control, then the attitude to protesters is likely to be harsh.
  • The type of police involved . Some groups of police are more inclined to use higher levels of force than others. Some specialist crowd control' police are trained to view protesters as enemies and to see their task as defeating that enemy by using overwhelming force.
  • The type of equipment and weapons available to police. Some believe that riot gear like riot shields, helmets and batons makes it more likely that police will use high levels of force, because it prepares them for violence (Jefferson 1990). The availability of weapons like capsicum spray may also influence the level of force that police use.
  • Relative numbers of police and protesters . If police are outnumbered this may disincline them from using high levels of force. On the other hand, determined and outnumbered police may decide to resort to weapons such as horses or capsicum spray to disperse a crowd.
  • The legal context . Fear of civil litigation may restrain police from using high levels of force. Legal uncertainty about the right to use force to arrest or disperse a crowd may also act as a restraint.
  • Media portrayal of activists . In the court of public opinion, negative media portrayal of protesters permits harsh policing. Police sometimes deliberately contribute to negative stereotypes about protesters in order to create a context where violent confrontations or police brutality are seen as the responsibility of protesters.
  • Presence of media . Although the media will generally give great credence to police perspectives, media images of police violence inevitably prove problematic for police because they provide an objective record of events. Police will therefore be reluctant to use violence in the presence of the media, particularly media cameras. On the other hand, the fear of negative publicity sometimes means that police will attempt to disable camera operators as part of their overall strategy.
  • Attitude of senior police. Messages from the top are important in influencing the behaviour of rank and file police. The attitude of senior police to protesters generally and in relation to particular protests or protest movements will set the tone of the police response. The attitude of the Chief Commissioner of Police is particularly important in shaping the attitude of police to protesters.
  • The nature of the protest movement . Police are a quasi-military organisation with rigid lines of command and control. Police feel uncomfortable dealing with protest movements that have no clear leadership. Also police have a fairly strong occupation culture which encompasses conservative values. Protest movements that embrace and embody diversity and that look and feel' different from the mainstream are likely to be viewed with great suspicion and hostility. For example, police may feel more comfortable with and therefore less hostile towards picketing members of the Maritime Union of Australia than, say, towards global justice protesters. Police may also be more likely to feel comfortable with concerns they can directly relate to, like pay and conditions, than global justice.
  • Protester tactics. A commitment to nonviolence does not guarantee a tolerant police response. On the other hand, experience shows that any violence or verbal provocation from protesters does dramatically increase the likelihood that police will use harsher tactics. Once provoked, police may not differentiate between activists using different tactics or engaged in provocative or non-provocative acts.
  • Prior knowledge of protesters. Police intelligence units keep careful tabs on those who attend protests. Police are likely to take a harsh approach to those they consider agitators', leaders' or organisers.

It is valuable for activist groups to study these factors. Strategically altering any of these factors can influence the way in which police act toward a protest or campaign in subtle ways, as well as helping to predict possible police tactics (see Gillham & Marx 2000 for an excellent discussion of the 'factors influencing police tactics at the battle of Seattle').

However, the discretion whether or not to use their powers, and how they use them, rests with the police and not with the activists.

It needs to be remembered that despite the nonviolence of activists, the presence of media, legal observers and other constraints, police can still apply extremely violent tactics and methods whenever they choose or are ordered to do so. It is always worth anticipating and planning for this.

For more information about organising in the face of increased repression, see Organizing in the Face of Increased Repression by Starhawk.

Surveillance of activists

Assume that there is surveillance of some type going on if you are an activist. Police have always gathered information by secret means and with advanced technology it is far easier.

Some surveillance of protests is obvious. Members of the police camera unit will stand aside from the action and continually video everything that happens.

Activists should also be aware that police special branches (or the Protective Security Intelligence Group in Victoria) and ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) collect information including videos of individuals and groups, mostly from the left, trade unions, human rights campaigners and ethnic communities. Australia and Victoria have a long history of political surveillance and infiltration by police.

This is not only done at demonstrations: it includes monitoring of websites, email lists, social media, meetings, phone taps and physical surveillance outside homes or offices.

Heidi Boghosian, Director of the National Lawyers Guild in the United States has said that the two most  significant trends in surveillance of activists are “One, the use of high-technology and sophisticated military equipment [by police], and two, cooperation between law enforcement and the private business sector, especially with regard to surveillance/spying.” (i)

Police have access to technology to monitor protesters such as facial recognition, Internet data mining, and, in the United States, even drones.

Data available to police, security and other government agencies under Australian federal law (2012) includes phone and internet account information, outward and inward call details, phone and internet access location data, and details of IP addresses visited.

Access to this information is authorised by senior police officers or officials rather than by judicial warrant. Data is also accessed by state police and anti-corruption bodies, government departments and revenue offices, and many other official bodies.

The largest user of telecommunications data in 2010-11 was the Victoria Police with 65,703 authorisations. It has reported an increase of more than 50 per cent in authorisations over two years. NSW Police reported 43,416 authorisations over the same period. (ii)

Telecommunications data is also accessed by ASIO but public statistics are not available.

(i) Punishing Protest, Policing Dissent: What is the Justice System For? by Erik Hoffner |

(ii) Police spy on web, phone usage with no warrants by Phillip Dorling at

Also see

Private & corporate surveillance

Private Intelligence gathering companies operate in Australia.  These companies, such as NOSIC the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (Australia) often have contracts with police, government or corporation and will extensively monitor, collate, assess and report on publically accessible information about individuals or organisations.  It is ‘open source intelligence’. For example; a private intelligence gathering company may monitor websites, social media, email lists, media releases, and any public documents relating to an activist campaign, compile it into reports and sell that information to police or companies. NOSIC proudly provides services such as ''issue monitoring'', ''tactical intelligence'', ''threat analysis'' and ''trend analysis and forecasting focus on emerging patterns and trends in activism''.

In the United Kingdom in late 2003, private intelligence gathering companies were uncovered by Sunday Times investigations spying on and infiltrating activist groups. R&CA Publications was monitoring the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and other anti-militarism organisations. The agency employed undercover agents to infiltrate the pressure groups on behalf of BAE, then called British Aerospace. Files and intelligence was passed on regularly to security companies such as Group 4 and the British Government.

Governments pass info onto private sector as well - FOI documents show the Energy Security Branch of Minister Martin Ferguson's department was proactive in ensuring the Australian Energy Market Operator, Macquarie Generation and TransGrid were warned of a ''peaceful mass action'' at the Bayswater power station in NSW in 2010. (i)

On the street level - private security cameras are increasingly being used to monitor protests and footage can be passed to police if requested or criminal conduct arises. The City of Melbourne Council has an extensive network of surveillance cameras in the Melbourne CBD. These have been used to cover political protests and footage of protests has been passed on to police. Most large corporate buildings now also have security cameras that monitor doorways, foyers and entrances. There are also over 100 CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras located throughout Melbourne's private operated Federation Square for instance which feed into a 24 hour Security Control Room.

A good general guideline for activists is:

  1. Assume that police are monitoring online communication, assume your phones and text messages are being observed, and that anything planned in an open, public meeting is known. For most open, democratically organised movements, campaigns and actions this is business as usual.
  2. If you do want to organise something that depends on surprise, simply don't do it on the internet, on the phone or in an open meeting.  Read more about security culture - here is a good resource -   by Ruckus Society
  3. If the surveillance is harassing, intimidating or impacting on your work, record everything to look for patterns. Discuss and analysis what is going on so you have the clearest possible picture. Analysis is vital for getting your security precautions right.
  4. Seek legal advice as soon as any surveillance is detected.  Avenues such as Freedom of Information requests or civil suits may be possible.  Legal support will be a part of your support structure.
  5. Set up support structures. Tell others who you trust, other campaigners and activists and allies such as parliamentarians, priests, Imams or other community leaders and ask each for specific support.  The reason for this is not to isolate yourself but to systematically increase your profile and links with others in society. It signals to the people undertaking the surveillance that you have support and serves to deter further harassment - repression aims to marginalise you politically - it is important to assertively counter this.  
  6. Likewise - if you know of others who are experiencing some form of surveillance or harassment then offering genuine solidarity and support is vital.
  7. You or your group can then make a clear decision to expose the surveillance to the public and the media.  Provide evidence to journalists, prepare and release a public document.  Expose the surveillance as an injustice and demand redress publically and in conjunction with legal action.

(i) Spies eye green protesters by Philip Dorling at

Political surveillance in Victoria - a recent history

On October 6 1997, The Age newspaper in Melbourne published information, documents and allegations leaked from the Victorian Police Force, presumably by a former police officer or an internal whistle blower, that sent shock waves through Victoria's diverse social change networks.

The leaks about Victoria's Secret Police were front page for a week, detailing how undercover police officers had infiltrated, spied on, bugged, taped and collected files on just about every group in society that had something to say. The surprise for many activists was not that the Victorian Police were infiltrating and spying, but the extent to which the covert police targeted relatively mainstream and 'conservative' lobby groups. Aside from that, the leaks revealed a fascinating insight into police operational procedures and the way police view all activists as potential 'threats to society'.

The confidential dossiers, records and files obtained by the Age date from 1985, compiled after the then Victorian Government disbanded the Special Branch in 1983, and cover the years up until 1992 when the Unit's role was taken over by the 'Protective Security Intelligence Group' who continue to gather information today.

The Melbourne Peace Fleet, The Melbourne Rainforest Action Group, Friends Of the Earth, the East Gippsland Coalition, Duck Rescue and Animal Liberation, Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society and many other groups and campaigns were all infiltrated by undercover police officers at various times, and had dossiers compiled on their activities and files kept on many individual members.

Alongside these groups were a few far-right and neo-fascist groups such as National Action. However, there were also hundreds of other groups such as the Council of Single Mothers, The Australian Conservation Society, Friends of the ABC, Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, Koorie Information Centre, community legal centres, feminist groups, migrant groups, HIV/AIDS and gay activist groups, tenants groups, community radio stations 3CR, 3RRR and 3JJJ, disabled groups and elderly groups.

On the massive but incomplete police list of 1240 individuals obtained by The Age are teachers, lecturers, trade unionists, and even Democrat and Independent politicians, church ministers, an Order of Australia recipient and many names of nonviolent activists involved in the groups above.

The activities of secret police units like this represent only a part of the wide spectrum of police harassment and organised repression of social change groups. The acts of bugging, phone tapping, use of listening devices, infiltrating and compiling of files not only constitute an invasion of privacy but can also be a subversion of the state's own laws and politically motivated corruption. In many cases the activities described were 'illegal', operated without the knowledge or consent of the then government, in fact, against the stated wishes of the Cain administration, which made it clear that it would not tolerate surveillance of community groups when it disbanded the Special Branch. It was alleged by the former head of the police complaints authority that senior police defied state government orders to incinerate thousands of secret Special Branch files and instead had them stored in suburban police stations and continued updating and using them. (The Age 16/12/97) What is not clear is whether or not, or at what level, the government knew about these activities, or whether senior sections of the Victorian Police were operating and giving orders independently.

The existence of files such as these is pertinent to activists for several reasons. By remaining where they are, they pose an ongoing threat that they will be used by a future authoritarian government. Secondly, the activities of the undercover operatives often involved actual internal meddling or sabotage within the activist group. For example, according to a former member of the unit, an undercover officer infiltrated the Melbourne Peace Fleet and managed to sabotage its ability to campaign by almost sending it broke. The Peace Fleet, which blockaded US nuclear warships in Port Phillip Bay, was persuaded by the undercover officer to spend most of its money on paying for rubber boats and canoes for one large action. Strapped for cash, the group was unable to mount an effective protest for several years, the former member said.

According to Joseph O'Reilly, then from Liberty Victoria the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties,

"the deeply rooted culture of excess [in the Victorian Police] has given birth to actions with grave implications for fundamental human rights and democracy. To bug, tap, and infiltrate meetings and organisations without the approval of a judge or magistrate is to open the floodgates to totally unfettered police powers, which can be used against anyone, anywhere."

In other cases, information from undercover operatives was passed on to security staff, and other police units, to diffuse the impacts of several actions that were supposedly planned in secret. The records show that operatives were so successful in infiltrating groups that many became trusted members, taking part in planning meetings, drawing up membership lists and helping the groups in their day-to-day activities.

Over a four year period up to 1990, the police unit worked closely with Army Intelligence units and ASIO, often swapping information and jointly "assessing" the peace movement in Victoria. In July 1989, police infiltrated a Nurrungar planning meeting at RMIT and passed the info and photos to ASIO and Army Intelligence. The former member said the ASIO database of domestic-level protesters must be massive. The unit also briefed and passed information on activists to interstate police forces such as the identities and activities of Victorian conservationists working in NSW forest campaigns.

The unit conducted numerous searches without warrants, hid secret files from the police ombudsman during an investigation, and routinely photographed protests, marches and rallies, including the Palm Sunday, Reclaim the Night and May Day marches, candlelight vigils and even the family-oriented 'Teddy Bears Picnic' organised by the Victorian Childcare Action Group. The unit often sought information that the police could use in the media to discredit activists groups, particularly those involved in legal rights, police powers or campaigning about police shootings. In some cases the unit was involved in spying upon and deliberately undermining community efforts to bring other police to justice.

Community groups in Victoria reacted angrily to the revelations. Holding a joint media conference on 7 October 1997, a coalition of ten groups, including Friends Of the Earth and Liberty Victoria (Victorian Council for Civil Liberties), condemned the activities of the secret police and called for a full judicial inquiry into the Operations Intelligence Unit and the current version. This call was joined by many other groups and individuals over the next few days, including the former premier John Cain, and 500 people attended a public meeting. Many groups and individuals lodged Freedom of Information Requests to obtain their files and a public campaign against the existence of 'Secret Police' was organised by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

For activists, the leaked information serves as a valuable insight into the culture and attitude of police, and into the range and extent of their abilities to spy, sabotage, undermine and provoke violence from within a campaign. In the face of such information it is well worth remembering that all governments, no matter how openly 'democratic', have both overt and covert aims and methods of achieving them. Also, for all their efforts and expense, they have consistently managed to fail to stop ordinary people struggling for and creating change.

Political Surveillance in Victoria adapted from an article by Anthony Kelly, Published in Nonviolence Today 57.

Also see Dealing with surveillance

Activist security resources

Security Culture - A Comprehensive guide for activists in Australia

This website provides information about Security Culture throughout activist groups in Australia which may be working on addressing various issues such as social justice, equality, climate change, human rights, radical environmentalism, anti-globalisation; and many others. It also offers a free download of the information in pdf format.

Free resources to download including A Practical Security Handbook for Activists and Campaigns; Infiltrators, Informers and Grasses; and A Guide to Secure Meetings in Pubs. The Security Handbook covers a range of security issues for activists, from media strategy to planning actions, to dealing with surveillance and infiltration. Readers would do well to heed the warnings included in Infiltrators, Informers and Grasses – don’t become paranoid, don’t gossip, and never make accusations about people without significant investigation and evidence.

Security Culture for Activists

A resource by The Ruckus Society, walks activists through security measures we can take to safeguard ourselves, including helpful advice about people, groups and data security.

Digital Security

Digital Security for Activists

Written for activists by activists and put together by Riseup, this is a 60 page zine including personal stories and practical advice about digital security and online organizing.

Security in-a-box

Tools and tactics for your digital security a collaborative effort of the Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line. It was created to meet the digital security and privacy needs of advocates and human rights defenders.

Surveillance Self-Defense Project

Resources from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Security for Human Rights Defenders

Workbook on security: practical steps for human rights defenders at risk

Published by Front Line this Workbook is informed by the experience of human rights defenders around the world, many of who operate in extremely repressive and risky environments. The Workbook takes you through the steps to producing a security plan – for yourself and for your organisation. It follows a systematic approach for assessing your security situation and developing risk and vulnerability reduction strategies and tactics.

Integrated Security: The Manual  

Integrated Security Workshops have been developed for women human rights activists and excellent workshop materials are available for download.

New Tactics in Human Rights 

This excellent website includes a wide range of resources. Two online international dialogues have discussed security issues: Staying Safe, Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders and Being Well and Staying Safe.

Compliled by Anthony Kelly - 2012

DIY legal research

Finding the relevant law is often not easy, even for a lawyer, although it has become easier with computers. This section is a good place to start if you follow the links. However it may be necessary to locate the actual laws or legislation under which you could be, or have been, charged.

It is most important to try and locate the most recent law as some areas change regularly.

The following is a brief guide to finding the two types of law: Parliament-made law (legislation), and judge-made law case law. Don't be frightened by the task and don't hesitate to ask for help from a librarian when using a library.

To find out what the law is, you can look at three sources:

  • The laws made in Parliament
  • Delegated legislation
  • The decisions made by judges in courts which are published in volumes of law reports

Acts, other legislation

The phrases statute law, legislation and parliament-made law are also interchangeable.

You can often tell whether an Act is a Commonwealth or state Act as a reference to a Commonwealth Act usually has (Cth) written after it. References to Victorian Acts should have (Vic) written after them. Acts and delegated legislation are printed in statute books.

An Act has a name and a date, for example, Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). The name indicates the contents of the Act while the date specifies the year the Act was made in Parliament. Both pieces of information are needed to find an Act in a library since Acts will be organised in alphabetical order by year.

Reading an Act is made easier if the Act has a contents list at the front with sections, parts and divisions, each with its given title. There is usually a definition section at the front of each Act, which explains what is meant by some of the words used in the Act. The definitions are crucial to understanding the Act.

Sometimes, at the back of an Act there are Schedules, which may contain tables, forms for court documents and other information.

The period within which changes (called amendments) to the Acts, Regulations and Ordinances have occurred will sometimes be indicated in the date part of the title, e.g. The Family Law Act 19751977. To find an up-to-date Act, Regulation or Ordinance you can either search the Parliamentary statute books for the various amendments, or use reprints. Reprints are usually produced more rapidly by private publishers (e.g. CCH) rather than by government printers. Obviously, it is very important to make sure that the copy of an Act is as up to date as possible.

A copy of any Act, Regulation, or local law can be bought from the appropriate government bookshop, or online. Subscription services for online access are one way of making sure the document you are relying on is totally up to date. However, these services are expensive for the occasional user. The government sites may not be updated as quickly as subscription sites, but are free and extremely useful for most purposes. If you do not have online access at home, your local library will assist with getting access.

Legal information

The following websites provide information and legislation:

For Commonwealth law:

The Australasian Legal Information Institute This site provides access to a broad range of legislation and cases from across Australia. It is an excellent starting point.

Australian Government This site provides a great deal of interesting and useful information about government services and policies, not just legislation, and is a useful starting point for links to government agencies of every description.

For Victorian law:

Victoria Online and The Law Handbook Online both these sites will assist the search for state legislation or information, policies and links.

For local councils:

Department of Planning and Community Development Use this site to find your own local council's site.

For hardcopy reference material:

Australian Commonwealth Government Bookshop
190 Queen Street, Melbourne 3000
Tel: 9670 4224
Information Victoria
356 Collins Street, Melbourne 3000
Tel: 1300 366 356

If you wish to find an Act or other Parliament-made law without buying it from a government printer, go to one of the libraries listed in the section following.

Law reports

Law reports contain the more important cases decided by the courts. There are many different series of law reports, each one reporting decisions of different courts in different states and countries.

When a reported case is referred to in books, a traditionally accepted shorthand reference will be used: for example, Commonwealth v Anderson(1960) 105 CLR 303; Commonwealth v Anderson[1961] ALR 354. This case has been reported in two law report series: the Commonwealth Law Reports(CLR) and the Australian Law Reports(ALR). In the above examples, the person commencing the action is the Commonwealth and the person defending the action is Anderson. In the first series of reports, (1960) is the year in which the decision was handed down and 105 is the volume reference. In the second, [1961] is the volume reference. The final figure in both cases is the page number the judgment starts at in that volume.

Most law reports contain the names of the parties to the dispute, a summary at the front of the case which lists the facts involved and the court's decisions (called the headnote), written judgments, word for word, of the judges, including their reasons for deciding as they did, and the order of the court.

If you are looking for cases on a particular topic, as opposed to a particular case, you can use the Australian Legal Monthly Digestor Australian Current Law(both available online). These books are arranged under topics and list relevant cases and where to find them. Comprehensive databases are also becoming increasingly available. Most of the courts now also have websites and you are often able to access the judges' decisions. For example:

Online information

There are now many Internet sites offering general or more specific legal information, apart from this site.

Victoria Legal Aid - This site also explains VLA guidelines and policies and provides access to a range of plain English publications on legal issues as well as information about VLAs guidelines and policies.

Law Institute Victoria -This site has information of assistance to lawyers rather than the general public.

The Law Handbook Online - This site will assist the search for state legislation or information, policies and links.

There are also several other commercial sites that provide some legal advice and offer advertising for law firms at the same time. New sites are being created all the time - a search engine such as Google offers literally hundreds of websites. However, as with any online information, you need to check that the site you are accessing is a reliable and authoritative source of legal information, and not just a forum for expression of an individual’s view (possibly inaccurate) of the law.


Local libraries do not carry extensive law collections, although most municipal and shire libraries will hold some basic law books. Some libraries have good inter-library loan arrangements and can often borrow a book from another library. They also tend to respond well to demand.

Following is a list of law libraries in Victoria that may be consulted by the public. Apart from these, all law courts will have at least basic collections that may, with permission from the court staff, be consulted.

Victoria Legal Aid
350 Queen Street
Melbourne 3000
Tel: 9269 0234
Monday to Friday - 9am to 5pm
State Library of Victoria
328 Swanston Street
Melbourne 3000
Tel: 8664 7000.
Monday to Thursday - 1pm to 9pm
Friday to Sunday - 10am to 6pm
Closed on public holidays.

All libraries now offer Internet access, and trained staff can assist even the total novice to find almost anything online.

Costs and charges vary from library to library, but it is astonishing what can be located for little or no cost. If you need help, it is best to make prior arrangements with library staff to ensure someone is available to assist you.

Also see Legal information for activists for more specific legal information for activists.