This information has been developed to help organisers form an effective Legal Support Team for a large action.
It is a general overview of places to begin discussion and work. Read Legal Support Team roles for a look at the details and logistics of a legal support team.
It is worth using the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as the basis of the Legal Support Team’s mandate.
Questions to consider
- How will the legal team make decisions?
- How will the legal team be accountable to the larger group?
- What are the goals of the legal team? What assumptions are implicit that need to be made explicit?
- Who are you committing to provide legal support for? (e.g. anyone arrested in conjunction with the action, only those participating in legal solidarity, only those whose tactics or charges fall inside the “action guidelines”, etc.)
- What are likely police tactics (e.g. police picking people up in small groups after the action, rather than in mass during the action)? What are possible strategies to deal with these tactics?
- Are there proactive legal or political steps you can take to thwart police or government harassment and repression? (e.g. intervention orders, putting the police on notice, media blitz, human rights observers etc.)
MISSION STATEMENTS OF INTERNATIONAL LEGAL SUPPORT GROUPS
In developing a operating philosophy for your group, it may be useful to draw on the articulations of other established groups committed to activist legal support
Green and Black Cross (UK)We believe in and support the kind of democratic change that comes from below. We see in history a narrative of progressive change when people come together in the face of dominant powers to confront problems and take their fate into their own hands. Through a diversity of tactics we see change occuring in this way from the fight for the five day working week, the movements for women's suffrage to the Poll Tax rebellion. For us, as the chant goes, this is what democracy looks like!
At the same time in these histories we find repression and abuse of social struggles by concentrated power -be that state, big business or 'revolutionary' Political Parties. For this reason we share a tradition and commitment to non-hierarchy and collective decision making.
Green and Black Cross has not been set up to direct a movement. Instead our role is one of support and developing the strength of movements through the practice of non hierarchy and mutual aid.
Die Rote Hilfe (‘Red Aid’) (Germany)The Rote Hilfe is a solidarity organization that supports individuals from the left who are politically persecuted. It focuses on political refugees from the Federal Republic of Germany, but also works to support those persecuted by forces from other countries. We support all those who because of their left political activity lose their jobs, have to go before the court or are sentenced. Similarly, we support those who are persecuted in another state and who are denied political asylum here.
1. We provide both political and material assistance
- We prepare together with the defendants before the trial and make known his/her political background, especially in public.
- We take care of solidarity events, fundraisers and grants to ensure that the financial burden borne by many together. We aim to cover legal and court costs partially or completely, but also payments for living expenses will be paid if heavy fines are incurred, people face job loss or imprisonment or the victims or their families are in trouble.
- With political prisoners, we maintain personal contact and advocate that the prison conditions improved, especially solitary confinement is lifted, and we demand their release.
2. The Rote Hilfe is not charity
Supporting individuals facing repression is simultaneously a contribution to strengthening the movement. Each and every one participating in the campaign should be able to do so in the knowledge that afterwards, if they face criminal proceedings are will not be left alone. One of the main purposes of government persecution is to isolate individuals who have taken to the streets together, by picking out individuals, imposing exemplary punishments as deterrents. Against this, Red Aid promotes the principle of solidarity in order to encourage the continuation of the resistance.
Besides the direct support for those affected by state repression, the Rote Hilfe aims to generally defend against political persecution. For example, we work before demonstrations to make sure that the participants are equipped and prepared to protect themselves and other from injuries, arrest and state violence. We are committed to campaigning against the strengthening of criminal sanction or repressive laws, against the weakening of the rights of the criminal defense and defendant, against isolation punishments, and against further restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly.
It's crucial to establish good relationships with the local legal community.
Connect with progressive legal organisations, as well as public defenders. Also, if you don't already have ties in the local legal community, ask local activists which lawyers might be interested and who can help the legal team network.
Arrange a group meeting with all the lawyers who are interested and all members of the legal support team.
Lawyers are usually busy, so the earlier you can let them know what kind of help you will need, the better.
Make sure everyone's commitments are clear so that you know what to expect and they don't feel put out. Don't expect lawyers to come to every meeting or training, but let them know what is happening and that they are welcome to come.
Communication is key. Be friendly and respectful and make them a part of your team.
Make sure legal team members and volunteers don't always get stuck doing the same mundane tasks. This is especially true with the Away Team (the people who go out into the streets, jails, and courts), which can be fun and exciting, versus the Office Team (the people who take all of the calls and process all of the information), which can be frustrating and stressful.
The legal team can only be effective if everyone has good information. Share information effectively between Away Teams and the office as well as within the office.
Most lawyers are used to working hierarchically. There are sometimes issues with control and power dynamics between activists and lawyers. This can be a big problem when it comes to decision-making and information sharing. Be sure to identify and deal with any issues before the action.
Ensure the safety of the Legal Support Team, especially if you are holding sensitive photos, footage or other evidence of protests, or if Legal Support Team spokespeople are making media comment about sensitive issues (such as inappropriate police behaviour at protests), as they may themselves experience harassment or intimidation from authorities.
It is important to prepare for such possibilities and but measures in place to look after the safety of legal support team members, media spokes people and the information you have collected.
Basic 'security culture' measures are important ways to protect the safety of the legal support team.
- Turn off phones/take batteries out/put them in another room during meetings.
- Think about what information is distributed via email or other electronic communication.
- If members of the group are feeling unsafe, support each other, some support tactics include daily telephone check ins, making sure people are not alone at night if they don't feel safe in that situation etc.
- Providing Activist Legal Support can be exhausting, time-consuming and extremely stressful. Be aware of your own limitations, and be aware of burn out. Identify it early and make sure to rotate tasks if possible to minimise these risks.
Even though the role of the Legal Support Team is to support the movement - make sure the team has appropriate support as well!
Ensure the safety of information, The Legal Support Team is likely to have access to information - such as statements about police violence, footage of police behaviour - which may be controversial and needs to be properly protected. Protecting this information requires making sure that information is subject to legal professional privilege as well as taking material steps to ensure its safety - such as keeping information in locked spaces, having duplicates or backups of important files etc. Much of this is common sense - don’t leave delicate information unprotected or lying around!
Establish processes from the beginning about how the Legal Support Team will protect information collected. Consider having a support law firm or community legal centre state that they are the lawyers on the record for any issues arising out of the protest (whether criminal or civil) and thus that they consider all protesters as potential client, and all material collected by the Legal Support Team or Legal Observers as privileged and protected as part of their client’s case.
If you are taking statements from protesters, attempt to establish a lawyer/client relationship as soon as possible (that is ask them to sign a retainer, authority to act or both) so that any statements taken or material collected is subject to legal professional privilege. Again, approach supportive legal firms or community legal centre to request whether they are happy to enter into such relationship with protesters.
Also see Activist security resources
Volunteers are critical for the success of your Legal Support Team.
Here are some tips:
Think about how you plan to train volunteers and incorporate them into the office. Do recruitment and get them involved early on so that you’ll have enough people. Coordination/scheduling of volunteers is difficult, and should be done as much in advance as possible. The legal support office or tent can be hell, and people can get burned out quickly. Show your appreciation, let people take breaks, and vary their tasks.
A key part of protecting the safety of the Legal Support Team, the information retained by the Legal Support Team and the activists and movement you are supporting is making sure that all volunteers are clear about confidentiality and privacy issues. Make sure volunteers are clear about what information from meetings or other interactions is confidential and cannot be shared further and are aware of their responsibilities around this. It may help to ask volunteers to sign a volunteer agreement specifying their objections in relation to confidentiality and privacy. Again, supportive community legal centres may be prepared to consider volunteers with the legal Support Team as volunteers for their service and then using their volunteer privacy and confidentiality agreements for this purpose would be appropriate.
Be prepared to give trainings on Know Your Rights, Legal System 101, Legal and Video Observing, and Legal Solidarity (if you’re using it).
Also see Training for activists