Our right to roam - victory for Gypsies and Travellers in High Court challenge

14 May 2024
‘Anti Traveller’ law declared “unjustified discrimination” by High Court judge

‘Anti Traveller’ law declared “unjustified discrimination” by High Court judge

The High Court has today ruled that certain parts in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that were introduced in 2022 (the anti-Traveller law), amount to unjustified discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers.

Parliament will now have to review the controversial law to ensure that it complies with human rights.

The High Court challenge was brought by Wendy Smith, a Romani Gypsy. She challenged the anti-Traveller law that gave the police new and extended enforcement powers to evict Romany Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised encampments, and to seize their homes and send them to prison if they failed to leave.

“The right to roam - our heritage” – Romany Gypsies (Boswell) on South Shore beach, Blackpool, circa 1900 Courtesy of Sharon Heppell
“The right to roam - our heritage” – Romany Gypsies (Boswell) on South Shore beach, Blackpool, circa 1900 Courtesy of Sharon Heppell

The charity Friends, Families and Travellers supported Wendy Smith with the High Court challenge as interveners.

Abbie Kirkby, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Friends, Families and Travellers said:

“The new police powers are part of a wider hostile environment against Gypsies and Travellers, particularly for families who have nowhere else to stop.

But, today’s ruling is a triumph for Gypsy and Traveller people, against one of the government’s flagship policies,” added Abbie Kirkby.

“Whilst some of the main provisions in the Act remain, they have been significantly diluted by this ruling.

We extend our congratulations to Wendy Smith and commend her bravery in standing up for what’s right.”

The right to roam - our heritage and history – Irish Traveller children in Anglesey, Wales - Wikimedia commons by Geoff Charles
The right to roam - our heritage and history – Irish Traveller children in Anglesey, Wales - Wikimedia commons by Geoff Charles

The new police powers made it a criminal offence, punishable with up to three months imprisonment, for Travellers to pull on to land with their homes, and then fail to comply with a request by the owner of the land to leave. The new powers also forbade anyone forced to leave from re-occupying the land within 12 months.

It was this 12 month no return part of the anti-Traveller law that the High Court said was; “unjustified race discrimination in circumstances where there was a lack of authorised transit site provision on which Gypsies and Travellers could camp lawfully.”

The High Court ruling has thrown the use of all parts of the new police powers into doubt, as police must now act within official police guidance, which campaigners say was an attempt by Police chiefs – who have always said that they didn’t want the new law – to water down the draconian powers contained in the original act of parliament.

Kill the Bill
A poster protesting about the 'police bill', the Act of Parliament that criminalised the nomadic way of life in 2022 (c) Huw Powell

Marc Willers KC, lead counsel for the claimant, commented:

“This is a hugely significant judgment. In granting the declaration of incompatibility, the Court recognised that there is a lack of lawful stopping places for Gypsies and Travellers and that unless the government increases provision, the law as currently drafted will amount to unjustified race discrimination.”

Chris Johnson, the claimant’s solicitor, commented:

“I am delighted for Ms Smith. Key parts of the enforcement powers introduced by the Police Act have been found to be unlawful race discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers. The National Police Chiefs Council never wanted these new powers and following this judgment, it is hard to see what the new powers will add in practice. I hope that Parliament takes this opportunity to look again at the new powers as a whole.”

Our future and the right to travel. Appleby 2022 © Bela Varadi
The right to roam - our present and our future. Appleby 2022 © Bela Varadi

When the anti-Traveller law was first announced by the Government in 2021, it sparked condemnation among Romany Gypsies and Travellers campaigners, who said it would criminalise the nomadic way of life and destroy their heritage.

Drive 2 Survive, a Romani and Traveller-led organisation founded by Sherrie Smith and Jake Bowers, was set up to specifically challenge the new law by holding protests, raising awareness, and building alliances with other minority groups and causes.

On July 7th, 2021 Romany Gypsies, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and New Travellers, Roma, Van-Dwellers and supporters from all over the UK, flocked to Parliament Square in their hundreds to support the Drive 2 Survive rally and show their unity and opposition to the new law, then known as the ‘Police Bill’.

Jake Bowers
Jake Bowers at the Drive 2 Survive rally, July 2021 (c) Ludovic

Drive 2 Survive’s Jake Bowers said:

"It is fantastic news that the High Court has ruled that the racist anti-Gypsy provisions in the Police Act amount to unjustified discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers.

Coming just days before Romani Resistance day on May 16 which celebrates the only recorded uprising in Auschwitz concentration camp, it just goes to show that when Gypsies and Travellers unite and fight and work directly with powerful lawyers that we are as effective and powerful as any community in Britain.

For those about to go travelling and for those police forces keen on stopping nomadic life, this is a much needed dose of justice.

When parliament reviews this legislation it is vital that it changes the law to defend a nomadic right to roam.

Drive 2 Survive was founded to stop this law and it vindicates everything we have done since 2021. We will be congratulating the courageous Romany woman who brought the case and the lawyers and other organisations that supported this crucial fight."  

Sherrie Smith
Drive 2 Survive co-founder Sherrie Smith (left) with Welsh Romani campaigner Alison Hulmes at the Drive 2 Survive 2021 rally (c) Ludovic

The successful claimant, Wendy Smith, was represented by Marc Willers KC and Ollie Persey of Garden Court Chambers. They were instructed by Chris Johnson of Community Law Partnership (‘CLP’). Chris was assisted by Andy Marlow of CLP.

Stephen Simblet KC and Nadia O’Mara acted for the First Intervener, Friends, Families and Travellers (‘FFT’), instructed by Parminder Sanghera of CLP.

This was Chris Johnson’s final case before retirement. For decades, Chris and his team at CLP have been at the forefront of legal challenges protecting and advancing the rights of Gypsies and Travellers. It is fitting that in his final case the Court has issued a declaration of incompatibility, which will have significant wider implications for Gypsies and Travellers.

Well done to all from the Travellers’ Times, and enjoy your retirement Chris Johnson! What a retirement present - and a gift to our communities!

The right to roam - our present and our future. Appleby 2023 (c) Eszter Halasi

TT News

(Lead photo: Romany Gypsy John Doe leads his cart from Stable Way, Hammersmith, to take campaigners to the Drive 2 Survive 2021 rally in Parliament Square (c) Huw Powell)

This article was amended on 28/07/2024 as a result of a TT-instigated review of recent stories, in light of Charity Commission rules once a general election has been called.