The European Court Of Human Rights
Photograph by Patrick Schrevens
We had played some songs to a café terrace in Leuven, and got into conversation with a young professional type of guy who was interested in our tale of woe about being arrested for busking the whole time in our own country, but not having a proper right to work or reside anywhere else.. Tricky situation. It meant that to keep ourselves legit in Belgium, for example, we had to make sure we left and re-entered the country every eight days – that way we could remain permanent tourists.
The person we were conversing with was a Belgian lawyer called Raf Gerard. He started talking about the European Convention of Human Rights, which he said most European countries had signed up to, and the Court of Human Rights, which the citizens of participating countries could appeal to.
Well that was the first we’d heard of it. But it seemed that it was a remedy we could only apply to one half of our illness, so to speak, because the individual only had the right to complain about their own country – so we could fight about the performing difficulties in Britain, but not about the residence difficulties on the continent. Ok, we could live with that.
Being the type of simpletons that we were, we decided on the direct approach. We hitch-hiked down to Strasbourg from our place in Leuven, having slept out one night on the way in some sort of building site just outside Metz. In Strasbourg we met some French students who befriended us and offered to put us up for a couple of nights. And so the assault on the bastions of justice began.
Turned out it wasn’t the actual Court we wanted – or at least, not at first. You had to start with the Council of Europe, and if they thought you had an arguable case they would represent you against your government at the Court.
So we go into the Council of Europe building, and someone explains that we will need to see the British rapporteur. We’re shown into a room, and a few minutes later in walks a glamorous young person announced as Madame Dollé, who turns out to be English. She’s quite matey with us, and says something along the lines of “Nice try lads, but I’m afraid you’ve got no chance!”
Well we hadn’t come all this way to be shown the door quite that quickly, so patiently we set out to demonstrate that this wasn’t just something we’d dreamed up for a laugh after a few drinks in the pub one night but was actually quite a serious issue, and eventually her face lightened up, as she said, “Yes, yes it’s about time we had a freedom of expression case here.” She gave us some forms to fill in then and there, and said we should find a lawyer to help us prepare our claim in detail. That was March 1983. Quite hopeful, after a tricky start.
Meanwhile back in England the Times and the Evening Standard had started following developments, which was a great asset, because getting publicity about the issue was half the battle – I mean, most people back home in those days didn’t even know that you couldn’t play music in a public place in London without being arrested.
We actually thought we had quite a good case. With, for example, Government publications like this one making use of images of buskers (THE HAPPY WANDERERS, a group of buskers from the 1950’s) to represent the character of Britain to people abroad, while at the same time British police were playing a nasty, dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with real-life buskers every day of the week – well, looked at in that way, the whole argument seemed cut and dried.
We had a lot to learn. The Commission Of Human Rights issued their report in October, turning down our application.
First off, they wouldn’t even commit themselves as to whether “the practice of street entertainment for gain falls within the scope of freedom of expression”.
Second, the fact that it was against the law apparently didn’t matter because “the applicants would be able to exercise their profession by virtue of an apparent official tolerance of buskers” (not something that we’d ever noticed).
And third, “The applicants have not substantiated their claim that they are outlawed, having managed to avoid serious confrontation with the police and prosecution for some years by their mobility” – so we’d weakened our case against the British Government by going abroad to avoid getting nicked, and our government had behaved very decently by allowing us to leave!
Two subsequent attempts, one in 1984 and one in 1995, also failed, and for the same reasons.
On one of our visits to Strasbourg in the eighties we stayed a night with an interesting guy we had got talking to – a soixante-huitard (or “sixty-eighter” in English), i.e. veteran of the 1968 riots and strikes in Paris. We discussed with him what we were trying to do. “Don’t worry”, he said, “the lawyers and judges will be sitting tonight in the finest restaurants in town, laughing about your case over a glass of champagne”.
To be continued…