Anyone who knows me will, I hope, attest to the fact I am not much of a trouble-maker. This is particularly true at the moment as I continue my recovery from chemotherapy and surgery, but happily I am now able to (gingerly) get out and about without much hindrance. Making use of my rediscovered freedom, my dad and I attended Hearts v Aberdeen on 2 April at Tynecastle. The game finished at approximately 21.30 and we departed the ground promptly to get to the car and away.
A knowledge of fitba geography may help here, but for those not au fait with the Roseburn Stand at Tynecastle away fans exit that stand onto McLeod Street. The quickest way to the main Gorgie Road thoroughfare is to turn right (south). The problem with such a right-turn is the volume of home fans that would meet you at such a turn, so not unsurprisingly the police closed that route to Aberdeen fans until Hearts fans clear. Those not wanting to stand around waiting turned left (north) on McLeod St. and looped round to Muireston Crescent. To be met by another – and, as far as I am aware, unadvertised – police closure, the effect of which being to deny access to Gorgie Road. (Russell Road remained open, but was not exactly handy for those seeking access to Haymarket railway station or cars parked in completely the opposite direction.) A Google Map showing the two pinch points (and the route between them) can be found here.
Cue much girning from Aberdeen fans, who had already faced a detour of a couple of hundred yards to be met by two vans, various officers on foot and eventually two mounted officers. Aforementioned fans had not exactly been boisterous until the second group of police officers were encountered, making me wonder about the utility of the block. Further, and although I do not have the mindset of a football casual, my guess is the first closure of McLeod St. at the ground would have thinned out any potential dramas, but there we go. Guilty until proven innocent would be the pejorative analysis of the treatment of the fans.
As is an academic lawyer’s wont, this got me thinking. On what basis had the road been closed? That is to say, on what legal basis had Police Scotland suspended pedestrian access? I struggle to see how Muireston Crescent could be neither a common law right of way nor accessible in terms of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. The latter rights only apply when being used responsibly and are subject to temporary suspension, but neither of those seems appropriate to me.
So that sums up the access to land position, but what about policing powers? Clearly there are situations when no-one would dispute the need to block access. No reasonable person would object to, for example, a fire-crew closing a road to deal with an incident. Looking to statute, s 20 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 seems to be in point, giving police a fairly wide power to maintain order. The argument will be that is exactly what the police were doing in this instance. Anyone breenging through the barricade would therefore be obstructing that duty and liable to arrest. Perhaps a s. 38 would have been deemed appropriate too.
I am not a criminal lawyer, so I am outwith my comfort zone. I decided to seek clarification on the law whilst I was loitering without intent awaiting the route re-opening. I had a quick word with one police officer, who was very polite and I have no qualms at all with him or indeed anyone else who was doing their job in good faith. The conversation went roughly like this.
Me: “Excuse me… Without meaning to cause trouble, and I respect the road closure here [grovel, über-civil citizen mode adopted…] Can you explain to my why this route has been closed?”
Officer: “There was some trouble at a previous Hearts v Aberdeen match, so Police Scotland have deemed this fixture to be in a higher category of policing.”
Me: “Okay, understood, but I wonder if you can explain on what legal basis the road has been closed to pedestrians? I thought we all had a right of responsible access under land reform legislation?”
Officer: “Well…Oh, this van is about to move.”
[The police van really was about to move, so I stepped back and the officer ensured the safe manoeuvring of said van.]
Officer [and other officers, loudly]: “Okay, if you could please make your way slowly through.”
Officer: “Goodnight, and safe home.”
So, the officer avoided further unwanted interrogation from me, and my dad and I got to our car thirty minutes or so later than we might have, and that was that. Barely worth writing a blog about, was it?
Well, maybe not. Scotland’s liberal access laws – which are often looked at enviously from abroad – are causing a bit of head-scratching in relation to other events. Andy Wightman has captured this in a blog about the Ryder Cup. With the greatest of respect to Heart of Midlothian and Aberdeen football clubs, that will be a bigger event than a midweek fitba match, and will need to be policed carefully. The world will be watching, as will some access advocates.
A quick word on the legalities of other events at the game. The fans were not impeccably behaved. For example, a flare was set off: I have never seen the point of this act of “support” and if anyone can explain it to me please do. (Police Scotland would have my full support in policing that.) I may have heard a chant about the solvency or otherwise of Hearts: not quite a breach of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, I would submit, but that legislation is not the most predictable of beasts.
And the match itself? There have been many times – particularly when I lived in Edinburgh (from 2006 – 2011) – when this Aberdeen fan would have happily snatched at a score draw at Tynecastle. Bizarrely, a score draw now seems like two points dropped, but I suppose that’s fitba and that is what keeps us fans interested. Proper policing of sporting events ensures fans’ continued enjoyment of spectator sports, and I have no problem at all with that, but there are times when the dividing line between proper and over-policing is not at all clear. Hence this blog, which might just make people think about it.
One personal note: I have no idea whether there was any trouble the last time Aberdeen visited Tynecastle. I was otherwise engaged. In fact, I blogged about that fixture, in very different circumstances. It is good to be back on form.