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What is a Legal Observer?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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A legal observer or LO is a neutral party who observes an event at which which misconduct on the part of police or government officials may become an issue. Most classically, legal observers are present at protests, demonstrations, and marches to look out for irregularities among the police, but legal observers may also monitor elections and other events. The goal of a legal observer is to protect the rights of ordinary citizens, ensuring that they are treated fairly and not pressured, discriminated against, or abused.

The practice of using legal observers appears to have emerged in England in the 1930s, when workers protesting various tactics at factories realized the advantage of keeping legal observers on hand. These observers were typically lawyers or advanced legal students, and sometimes their presence alone was enough to prevent misconduct.

Typically, a legal observer works on behalf of a non-partisan human rights organization. He or she may be a fully qualified lawyer, or a legal student. Legal observers usually take a workshop which explains the principles of their work and provides legal observers with forms, cameras, and other tools they can use to document events. Legal observers also clearly identify themselves with special clothes or signage, making it clear that they are neutral parties, not participants in the event.

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Legal observers keep an eye out for problems. They step forward if they sense that misconduct is occurring, and they also help people navigate interactions with police and government officials. In the case of an unpermitted march, for example, a legal observer will not step in to prevent arrests, but he or she will make sure that the prisoners are handled appropriately by police officers, and the legal observer may provide arrested people with contact information so that they can get legal help.

Legal observers generally stick to a clear code of conduct. They do not become physically involved, and they aim to remain nonconfrontational and within the law at all times. Every incident is clearly logged with as much information as possible so that the legal observer's notes can be used in criminal or civil proceedings later, and the legal observer tries to work with all parties involved to make sure that an event runs smoothly. Simply having legal observers present is often enough to ensure that things go well, as people are less likely to engage in misconduct when they know that their actions will be logged.

In some cases, the use of legal observers may be mandated by law or the court to ensure that an event runs smoothly. In these instances, legal observers may be provided by a foreign government or they may be appointed by the court in an attempt to reduce the risk of bias.

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