POLICE, PROSECUTION, COURTS AND WARTIME DEMONSTRATIONS: ADELA PANKHURST IN THE AUSTRALIAN HIGH COURT

Jocelynne Scutt

Abstract


Rights of assembly and freedom of speech are a rich ground for decision-making by police, prosecutors and courts in determining a balance with obligations of authorities to keep the peace and prevail against disorderly conduct or riot. Recent claims of abuse of police powers through “kettling” have reached the European Court of Justice. These cases directly address the scope and exercise of police authority in maintaining order during demonstrations. Yet not only police powers are in issue at times of political disputation. Two cases heard early last century by the Australian High Court illustrate the way in which both the decision to prosecute and judicial decision-making may be influenced by socio-political considerations, particularly in time of war. Pankhurst v Porter and Pankhurst v Kiernan saw Adela Pankhurst, youngest daughter in the redoubtable Pankhurst family of Suffragette fame, testing the limits of the law during the struggles to ensure that sending wheat abroad to feed the troops would not justify pricing bread out of the reach of ordinary, working-class households. The success of the appeal in Pankhurst v Porter exposed error in the prosecutorial process. The failure of the appeal in Pankhurst v Kiernan exposed flawed reasoning in the majority opinion and the strength of the dissenting judgment in it’s application of the law to the facts and the need to maintain objectivity or at least neutrality as to the particular appellant.

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