Three activists were on trial at Inner London Crown Court last week for committing Public Nuisance (maximum penalty, life imprisonment).
Judge Silas Reid had warned the Insulate Britain activists not to mention the climate crisis, nor home insulation and fuel poverty, in their closing statements, but two women refused to be bound by his restriction and appealed to the jury directly.
On Friday, several human rights barristers and lawyers protested outside the court prior to their hearing for Contempt of Court.
Last December, three others who took part in the same action (a roadblock at Bishopsgate) were found not guilty in a unanimous verdict, despite a similar ban on what they could say in their defence. Another Insulate Britain trial, relating to blocking an approach to the M4, has also ended in acquittal.
Last month, in his closing defence statement, care worker David Nixon defied a similar ban and referred to the thousands of deaths caused by fuel poverty, telling the jury we are on a path to climate hell. The judge cleared the court and later told the jury to disregard the comments. Nixon and his co-defendants were found guilty and will be sentenced later this month, but in the meantime Judge Reid sentenced Nixon to eight weeks in prison for his contempt.
Giovanna Lewis, a town councillor, and Amy Pritchard, a horticulturalist, also defied Judge Reid’s ruling this week, choosing to speak out about the crisis facing humanity.
Amy said “The climate crisis and fuel poverty are killing people now. I will not be prevented from speaking about this. This is my motivation, and it IS relevant.”
Giovanna stated “Every year thousands of UK citizens die of fuel poverty and thousands die in the world due to the climate crisis. In the future this will be millions. Government policies are responsible and the judiciary should prevent this instead of criminalising ordinary people trying to save lives and acting in self defence.”
After 12 hours of deliberation the jury were unable to reach a verdict, and a decision on whether there will be a retrial will be made at the end of the month.
Director of Plan B Earth Tim Crosland introduced speeches from human rights barristers and lawyers expressing concern over the restrictions which increasingly prevent defendants from explaining the motivations for their actions. He described what was happening as “a suppression of evidence”.
Jodie Blackstock, a barrister from Garden Court Chambers, asked whether the right to a fair trial was being breached. Tim asked “what does the right to freedom of expression mean if you’re gagged and imprisoned just for explaining yourself?” International lawyer Farhana Yamin, one of the lead authors of the Paris Climate Agreement, said that when juries hear about why the actions have happened, they become sympathetic. And this, according to barrister Paul Powlesland, is why some in the judiciary are curtailing any mention of climate, because they want guilty verdicts. Bindmans’ barrister Monika Sobiecki warned that if a trial is just for show to appease an authoritarian political appetite, then it simply becomes a show trial.
Inside the court, Giovanna told Judge Reid she was astonished that he could criminalise the words fuel poverty and climate crisis, and that she’d been naïve to think that justice was fair. Amy asked how the court could hear long tracts of evidence about disruption to traffic flow and so on, but stop her talking about our future.
Reid accused both women of either trying to manipulate the jury into making a moral decision rather than a legal one, or using the trial to continue their protest and get the message out to a wider audience beyond the court. Gio said there was a third explanation – the human spirit and heart and connection with life. She said the judge’s ruling was quashing her spirit and heart, and she felt she had to speak out and not allow her soul to be repressed by what he was doing.
Judge Reid described their actions as a deliberate and calculated contempt, and sentenced them both to seven weeks in prison.
Outside the court, Paul Powlesland spoke of the 17th Century Bushel’s Case, where a judge desperately wanted a jury to convict, and he locked them up without food or water to make them comply. The defendant famously reminded the jury to “Mind your Privilege, give not away your Right”.
With more and more climate protest cases coming before juries, the case is a solemn reminder that as a juror you have an absolute right to acquit any defendant as a matter of conscience. That cannot be challenged on appeal and you will never be asked to give a reason for it.
While Judge Reid explicitly does not want his court to be one where judgements are made on moral grounds, any individual jurors always have the right to do so.