Over the past few months there have been around a dozen trials (mostly heard by Judge Silas Reid at Inner London Crown Court) relating to the road-blocking campaign by Insulate Britain. Those who took part in the protests were aiming to cause disruption and attract media attention for their main demand – a massive roll-out of home insulation to decrease fuel poverty and combat the climate crisis.
Ever since a ruling by the Attorney General which followed the Home Secretary’s appeal against the acquittal of the Colston Four (who toppled the Bristol statue), there has been an erosion of protest rights and the role of the jury.
The Attorney General’s ruling, along with the earlier Ziegler ruling, restrict the defences available to someone accused of protest-related charges such as criminal damage or public nuisance, generally ruling out any balancing exercise relating to human rights or any defence of ‘necessity’ (attempting to prevent a greater evil).
There is still some leeway for judges to decide how much a jury can hear from defendants. Protest trials now sometimes begin with legal arguments where the prosecution ask the judge to rule out any mention of these defences at the start of the trial, while defence lawyers argue the jury should hear them, but the judge can then direct the jury at the end of the trial to ignore elements that are deemed irrelevant in law.
Real Media extensively reported the five-week trial of Burning Pink activists during which evidence of the extent of the climate crisis was heard. All but two out of 20 charges against 12 people ended in acquittal.
At Inner London Crown Court, Judge Silas Reid has attracted interest over his restrictive decrees at the start of Insulate Britain trials, that defendants and lawyers must not mention the climate crisis, nor fuel poverty, nor home insulation. His harsh application of recent legal rulings means that juries sit through evidence of traffic flow and delay, and are instructed to find defendants guilty in law, without ever hearing any context or explanation of the motivation for the action.
On four occasions, defendants have defied the judge’s instruction in their closing speeches to the jury. Those trials were immediately halted, juries sent out, and the defendant removed to a cell for ‘contempt of court’. In three cases, Judge Reid has then gone on to sentence the defendant to several weeks in prison. Interestingly, and perhaps because of the concerns expressed, he decided to take no further action in the last case.
Several leading lawyers protested outside the court during one of the contempt of court hearings. In an interview with Real Media, barrister Paul Powlesland reminded us about the 17th century Bushel’s case, where a judge locked up the jury without food and water for two days to try and force a guilty verdict, but this ended up setting a legal precedent – the absolute right for a jury to acquit on their conscience. The case is celebrated by a plaque inside the Old Bailey (where it is visible to court users, including jurors).
A group calling themselves Fair Justice Project have been posting notices in the streets near Inner London Crown Court displaying the legal information about the right for jurors to acquit on their conscience.
On the morning of 27th March, a retired social worker, Trudi Warner, used similar wording on a small banner and stood for half an hour on the pavement of the road leading to the juror’s entrance at the court.
When she returned to the court later that week, she was ambushed by police and arrested for contempt of court. Held in a cell for the rest of the day, she appeared before Judge Reid at 5pm and told she must appear at the Old Bailey on 4th April, yesterday, for contempt proceedings (“contempt in the face of the court attempting to influence the jury”).
Real Media attended the hearing and interviewed Trudi and her lawyer Raj Chada (Hodge, Jones & Allen) outside the court.
After hearing from Mr Chada, The Honourable Mr Justice Cavanagh stated that he had three available options going forward:
- To give a direction for a further contempt hearing, most likely at a Divisional Court
- To refer the matter to the Attorney General who will then decide whether to pursue a contempt proceeding or refer the matter to the police and Crown Prosecution to pursue a criminal charge of “attempting to pervert the course of justice”.
- To take no further action.
In his decision, Mr Cavanagh said that that “It is not the case in any trial that jurors can acquit by their conscience if by that it is meant they can disregard evidence and directions given by the judge and decide on their own beliefs whether a defendant is guilty of a criminal offence. To do so would be a breach of their jury oath and cause injustices.”
He ruled that the Attorney General was best placed to decide which option would be in the public interest, and so the case is referred and we will have to wait months for any further decision.
In the meantime, appeals have recently been lodged in relation to several of Judge Reid’s Insulate Britain trials, several trials scheduled after Easter have now been deferred until those appeals are decided.
A woman who had attended in support, was arrested at the Old Bailey for allegedly “attempting to pervert the course of justice” – a claim thought to be in connection with putting up a poster near Inner London Court.
The fact remains that Bushel’s case sets a so-far inalienable right in law, and it is celebrated by an overt plaque within the Old Bailey. So the question is, where can it be legal to display a banner celebrating this case, and more importantly, where and why could it NOT be legal to display this tenet of British law?
See also our article Hidden forces pushing change in our democracy and rights, which exposes some of the power and money behind the recent crackdown on protest rights.
(This article was amended on 6th April to add a photo of the Fair Justice Project poster)