The UK jury system, much like mini citizens’ assemblies, randomly selects 12 individuals from a large pool of those who are registered to vote, and asks them to bear witness, listen to evidence and legal arguments, and then deliver their verdict.
Back in 1670, William Penn and William Mead defied a law forbidding religious assemblies outside of the Church of England. They were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly after speaking to a crowd of several hundred in Gracechurch Street, London.
Failing to return a guilty verdict, their jury was imprisoned for two days with no food or water and then fined for contempt of court when they stuck to their not guilty verdict. A fascinating record of the trial can be found here.
After a legal challenge by juror Edward Bushel (who with three others, refused to pay any fine and was imprisoned for several months), Chief Justice John Vaughan ruled that jurors could not be punished for reaching a conclusion with which the trial judge disagrees. A plaque commemorating this important legal principle can be seen to this day by jurors attending trials at the nearby Old Bailey.
The right of a jury to disregard a judge’s instructions or to rule in defiance of a law (known as jury nullification or a perverse judgement) is seen by many as an important constitutional protection against over-reaching and authoritarian government.
In 1981, civil servant Clive Ponting was prosecuted for leaking documents suggesting the UK Navy had committed a war crime when it sank the Belgrano cruiser during the Falklands War. Despite Judge Anthony McCowan ruling out a “public interest” defence, the jury still acquitted the civil servant.
Over the past few years, Real Media has reported on several perverse judgements.
In May 2019, PhD researcher Roger Hallam and student David Durant were acquitted over a 2017 divestment protest at Kings College London which caused an alleged £8,000 damage. Despite Judge Gledhill’s clear instructions to the jury, heavily limiting the scope of any lawful excuse, they returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Full report here.
In April 2021, six Extinction Rebellion activists faced a charge over an alleged £25,000 of damage done to the Shell HQ. Judge Gregory Perrin told the jury that five of the defendants had “no defence in law”, but despite this instruction a majority verdict found all six not guilty.
Two scientists were acquitted in February by a jury after daubing paint on the frontage of The Royal Society. The only defence open to them was ‘belief in consent’ – they had to persuade the jury that if the building’s owners had known all the circumstances surrounding the protest, they would likely have given consent.
A similar restriction was applied to five Palestine Action supporters on trial last year for an action targeting the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, firing red paint and creating a symbolic ‘river of blood’ at their London HQ. Once again, despite the withdrawal of all defences except ‘belief in consent’, it only took the jury an hour to come to a unanimous not guilty verdict.
The legal clampdown reached its absurd pinnacle last year when, at Inner London Crown Court, Insulate Britain activists were regularly banned by Judge Silas Reid from mentioning climate change or fuel poverty to the jury. Some of those defying this ruling were imprisoned for weeks for contempt of court. Despite the bans, in several cases juries returned not guilty verdicts.
In solidarity with climate activists facing trial at Judge Reid’s court, a new response emerged – an attempt to ensure that jurors were aware of their legal right to acquit, as established in law by Edward Bushel. At the end of March, displaying wording very similar to the Old Bailey plaque (which is visible to jurors there), retired social worker Trudi Warner stood quietly holding a banner on the approach road to the court, where some jurors might see her.
When she returned to the court later in the week Trudi was arrested by police and held in a cell until the end of the day, then Judge Reid told her he was sending her to the Old Bailey for contempt proceedings. The next week Real Media interviewed Trudi and her solicitor Raj Chada after she’d been told her case would be referred to the Attorney General.
In May, 24 people (including an ex-Detective Sergeant, a vicar, a rabbi, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and Olympian Etienne Stott MBE) copied Trudi’s action and sat on the pavement approaching the juror’s entrance at Inner London Crown Court, quietly and peacefully displaying similar banners. Despite alerting Judge Reid of their action in a letter, no-one was approached by court staff or police, but people attending a trial reported that Judge Reid made mention of the protest and said those involved would be referred to the Attorney General.
In July, Real Media reported that a long-awaited trial of Extinction Rebellion co-founder Dr Gail Bradbrook was abandoned under severe reporting restrictions after a similar banner protest outside Isleworth Crown Court. Some returned later the same week, a few holding blank banners – an international symbol of state repression.
In August, 40 people signed a letter to the Attorney General stating they had carried out similar actions to Trudi Warner and were inviting prosecution.
As part of an escalating campaign, a new day of action was declared by umbrella group Defend Our Juries, to take place next Monday (25th September) outside several courts around the UK. Around twenty people then received letters from the Metropolitan Police referring to the May protest, inviting them in for ‘voluntary’ interview (or risk arrest), as part of an investigation into the offence of “attempting to pervert the course of justice”. And just a week later, Trudi’s solicitor was informed by the Attorney General’s office that they would be proceeding with action against her for contempt of court. A date at the High Court is yet to be set.
The fact that both notifications came within a week of each other just ahead of the day of action might point to a co-ordinated plan to frighten campaigners off. But the police in the UK are meant to be independent of political control. The idea that the Attorney General has in some way pushed them to proceed with their investigation just now, would be a worrying indication of an authoritarian regime – using state police to impose their political will.
Surely the Right Honourable Victoria Prentiss KC (who has been accused of potentially failing to declare fossil fuel shares) would not be pressuring police to prosecute fossil-fuel protesters on behalf of a government currently cutting back on climate measures?
If the state IS trying to frighten off the campaign which aims to ensure juries are aware they can challenge immoral, unfair, or politically-motivated legal processes by using their absolute right to acquit, then it is not working. More than a hundred people are expected to take part, holding banners outside UK courts on Monday, and the resulting media attention will help inform future jurors and perhaps attract many more to the campaign.
Although contempt is not technically a criminal offence Trudi will face up to two years imprisonment if the judge at the High Court is so inclined. And if the CPS proceed with charges against those suspected of attempting to pervert the course of justice then this is a serious criminal offence with a punishment of up to life imprisonment. New sentencing guidelines coming in on October 1st suggest that even at the very lowest level a custodial sentence is likely.
Former diplomat Craig Murray spent many months in a Scottish prison accused of contempt of court after writing about the trial of Alex Salmond and hinting at a high level conspiracy. Some of those he named have been arrested or are under investigation, but this has not cleared his name, and he is submitting a complaint to the United Nations. In it, he points at the UK’s falling reputation among international indices of press freedom, and outlines the growing political repression in our courts, saying:
“The misuse of legal proceedings to silence criticism and dissent threatens the very foundations of democracy in the UK, underscoring the urgent need for safeguards to protect these fundamental rights.”
UPDATE: On Monday morning a total of more than 250 people sat in solidarity with Trudi and others outside 24 UK courts, from Carlisle to Truro and Swansea to Cambridge.
Here’s our report from the Old Bailey.