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Legal observers are individuals, usually representatives of civilian human rights agencies, who attend public demonstrations, protests and other activities where there is a potential for conflict between the public or activists and the police, security guards or other law enforcement personnel. The purpose of legal observers is to monitor, record and report on any unlawful or improper behaviour. Legal or human rights observers act as an independent third party within a conflictual civil protest context, observing police behaviour in order to keep police accountable for their actions. Legal observers can write incident reports describing police violence and misbehaviour and compile reports after the event. The use of video and still cameras, incident reports and audio recorders is common.
It is thought that the concept of using legal observers first emerged during protests in the 1930s in the East End of London, where police agents provocateurs were used during protests by the British Union of Fascists (BUF). There were large counter-protests and it was alleged that the police sided with the BUF. Another case of legal observing was that carried out by the Black Panthers in the United States.
Legal observers were used by Liberty (then known as the National Council for Civil Liberties) in Wapping, London, during the mid-1980s. The Wapping demonstration was in response to large protests by labour unions against the industrial relations policies of media magnate, Rupert Murdoch.
Legal observers are associated with such groups as the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union (both USA), Liberty (UK), the G8 Legal Collective (Scotland), and others. In Australia in the 1970s, priests acted as legal observers during the large Moratorium Marches against the Vietnam War. In September 2000, Pt'chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group organised a large Legal Observer Team for the S11 (protest) against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne. In Sydney, the Legal Observers Project, formally based at the Community Law Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, and renamed Human Rights Monitors, was established in April 2001. This group reformed as Sydney Copwatch in 2009.