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UK government acted 'unlawfully' in restricting boycotts of Israel

Ruling means UK councils now free to advocate for ethical divestment policies, including boycotts of Israel on basis of human rights abuse
Supporters of the PSC hold placards bearing the picture of Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni during a demonstration in central London (AFP)

Britain's High Court has ruled that the UK government acted "unlawfully" by attempting to stop local councils from supporting boycotts of Israel.

The ruling now means that British councils are able to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and pursue it through their pension schemes. 

The case was brought to the High Court by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) after Department for Local Government and Communities released guidance advising councils on how to invest and divest their pension scheme. 

The PSC asked the judge, Sir Ross Cranston, to rule that the guidance was legally flawed as one section prevents funds set up under the scheme from engaging in boycotts and the "ethical divestment" of companies accused of being complicit in Israel's occupation of Palestine.

Campaigners say the illegal occupation is 50 years old this month and people have a right to decide not to profit from human rights abuses.

Their counsel, Nigel Giffin QC, said it was the government case that boycotts were contrary to UK foreign policy.

Government lawyers argued that all the grounds of challenge lacked substance.

Allowing the application for judicial review on Thursday, the judge said that the secretary of state for communities and local government acted unlawfully in issuing this part of the guidance as it fell outside the proper scope of his statutory powers because it was issued for non-pensions purposes.

The judge said that the PSC and its supporters, including War on Want, the Campaign Against Arms Trade and the Quakers, objected to the limiting effect of the guidance on their ability to campaign around the investment of local government pension funds affecting the Palestinian people and the occupied territories.

Hugh Lanning, chair of the PSC, said: "Today is a victory for Palestine, for local democracy, and for the rule of law.

"Absolutely everyone has a right to peacefully protest Israel's violation of Palestinian human rights.

"This ruling upholds the right of local councils and their pension funds to invest ethically without political interference from the government of the day."

Ben Jamal, director of PSC, said: "Our recent YouGov polling shows 43 percent of the public think BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is reasonable.

"We couldn't be happier that this right has been upheld by the court in the month the illegal occupation of Palestine turns 50 years-old.

"PSC will take forward its campaign for justice for the Palestinian people with renewed vigour."

Jamie Potter, a partner in the Public Law and Human Rights team at Bindmans LLP, said: "This outcome is a reminder to the government that it cannot improperly interfere in the exercise of freedom of conscience and protest in order to pursue its own agenda."