Along with three other people, I faced the criminal charge of common nuisance – an archaic law whose origins date back to the 12th century. Public nuisance, no matter how harmless it may seem, is punishable by up to ten years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
This specific accusation appears to have been deliberately resurrected to “cope” with the increasingly public civil disobedience movement in Britain. A widely publicized movement on the climate crisis and, more specifically, on the absence of a substantial response from the Conservative government to it.
Clearly embarrassed by the effectiveness of these campaigns compared to the sheer volume of media coverage (five weeks of headlines, reports and front-page discussions), the Home Office began to press for the police has increasingly draconian powers to “get them off the streets”.
In October 2021, the UK government was preparing to host COP26, an international climate conference bringing together world leaders and leading scientists.
The politicization of police laws is therefore not surprising. However, Met Police pushed back. Protest in 2021 was still a democratic right in the UK. But not for long.
In May 2022, the Home Office successfully pushed through Parliament a new Policing, Crime and Sentencing Bill, giving increased powers to the police and the courts to keep protesters away for extended periods. .
Exactly a year later, a second bill – the Public Order Act – was passed, explicitly targeting climate protesters with a host of new “tailor-made” charges. Human rights monitors in the UK and around the world have expressed concern.
Entering the dock to take the oath, I flashed on the bizarre scenario of which I was a part. Months of jury trials had seen hundreds of climate activists tried in courts across the country.
A vast misuse of public resources given the evident lack of criminality of any of the defendants on trial – students, small business owners, environmentalists, teachers, carpenters, engineers, doctors, farmers, professors, scientists, advisers, artists, architects, grandmothers, charity directors – a microcosm of British society.
Nevertheless, many, including myself, ended up spending time in prison, either on remand – in my case two weeks – or serving sentences of up to three years.
Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker, both engineers, were sentenced to three years and two years seven months respectively for protesting over the Dartford Crossing, a major bridge just outside London.
Substantial fines and legal costs amounting to thousands of pounds are frequently imposed and ‘serial offenders’ are tagged with GPS bracelets.
It is a profound and tragic irony to ring the alarm bells on the unprecedented existential crisis we are facing and to voice dissent in the face of the UK Government’s breach of its international obligations adopted under the Paris in 2015, would result in the criminalization of citizens whom Judge Silas Reid himself would come to describe as the “most moral” people he had ever met.
Entering the wharf is a lonely experience. There is a sense of existential diminishment in being faced with the full weight of the British establishment. The specter of unchallenged power whispers down the centuries – “how dare you!”
Aeons of institutional formality — wigs, long black dresses, elevated seating, dark wood paneling, even the damp air — create an “otherworldly” atmosphere. I soon sensed a clubbish intimacy in the lighthearted banter and inside jokes exchanged between the judge and the crown attorney.
And indeed, happy concise remarks were sometimes directed at those of us who were self-representing (i.e., without a lawyer). I found this a bit unnerving given the circumstances, especially since the judge’s stentorian attitude quickly came to the surface whenever he was challenged.
With its mostly black ushers, formal seating, high ceilings and drafty public gallery, the Inner London Crown Court is steeped in the scent of the distinctly colonial heritage of hierarchical power.
By the time my trial arrived, Judge Reid had been seriously criticized by the press. Even The temperaturea conservative newspaper, had reported on his unusually harsh decisions and the backlash they were creating. Private detectivethe popular satirical news outlet known for ridiculing public figures, followed suit.
Reid’s notoriety stems from his particularly stringent court rulings—rulings I’ve witnessed proliferate over the months of climate testing conducted under his aegis. The weak links in the prosecution’s case or the perceived strengths of the defense were, in my view, effectively eliminated as the list of prohibitions grew.
Central to the judge’s handling of the trial was the prohibition of any mention of the context or motives of the defendants’ actions. Along the same lines, by banning common defenses used in protest trials, Judge Reid effectively removed all legal arguments previously available to climate protesters.
Arguments on which many lawsuits had been won. This moratorium has proven highly controversial not only among climate protesters, but within the legal profession itself. Human rights lawyers gathered outside the court twice to publicly protest the judge’s stance.
According to Reid, the charge of common nuisance itself avoided the customary defenses. Furthermore, he said he would not allow any mention of climate change or fuel poverty in his court as justification for protest actions.
This meant that climate testing at the Inner London Crown Court would be judged solely on traffic data points and technical analysis relating to disturbances. Neither motive nor context according to Reid had “relevance” to these cases.
In his sweeping Rulings on the Ambit of Evidence, a burgeoning key document of 57 rulings, the judge stated categorically: “It is not necessary for the jury to understand why the defendants acted as they did in order to determine if they are guilty. or not. Any evidence on climate change is irrelevant.
As the trial unfolded, an alarming sense of the dissipation of judicial neutrality took hold of me. Excessive retention of evidence favoring the prosecution and censorship of the defense have become strictly.
For example, the historical context illustrating civil disobedience as a mechanism of social transformation was prohibited by the judge.
In his own words, “the defendants cannot testify about other protest movements through historical details or about the effectiveness of certain methods…If they were allowed to speak…it would risk to the jury that there might be a legal justification for the defendant’s actions, which there is not”.
The judge’s position on this point was clear but the jury did not have the opportunity to decide whether or not the effectiveness of the other protest movements was relevant.
In addition to his cumulative rulings, Judge Reid frequently offered to read our prepared evidence, including our closing statements, to ensure that we did not “risk” contradicting his rulings. Most of us refused.
But when he was honored by someone’s statement, he was fired with generous redactions. Following this, the prosecutor would freely ink any mention in our character references of “motivational integrity.”
Many of Reid’s peers in the bench subtly distanced themselves from his position. But he remained uncompromising in his interpretation of the letter of the law.
Defendants who shamelessly challenged his rulings were sent to jail for contempt of court. David Nixon, 37, was the first to do so. When he refused to apologize on the grounds that his duty was to “tell the whole truth”, Reid sentenced him to eight weeks in prison.
Meanwhile, other judges were making radically different decisions. According Private detectiveUK law is a “lottery” when it comes to climate protest.
Quoting a Horsham town judge who acquitted four protesters accused of blocking a motorway, the newspaper reported that the acquittal was based on them exercising their “right to free speech and peaceful protest”.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
Being immersed for weeks in a world of such brazen inconsistencies made me think deeply about what is going on in the English judiciary; an institution long considered the center of justice and a model of constitutional law in other countries.
The legendary 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in her book, Republic Crisesthat civil disobedience has “opened the way to real changes and challenges in society, to reforms, freedoms and modifications which, without dissent and popular uprising, would not have had the capacity to occur”.
She argued that “law may indeed stabilize and legalize change once it has occurred, but change itself is always the result of extrajudicial action”.
As my own trial drew to a close, the successive days of judicial curation, along with the categorical denial of the context and motive of our actions, gnawed at my soul and that of my co-defendants.
Coming to the end of my closing statement in court, I turned to the jury: “Crown prosecutor describes the public as our ‘victims’. That couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, our actions were entirely motivated by concern for the public good.
“We have been prohibited by the decisions of this court from speaking about the reasons for our protest. This court held that motive and context were irrelevant in this trial. That the criminal offense of public nuisance must be judged in a vacuum.
“But when context and motive are stripped of all trial, where is the justice in the law? The climate crisis is a fact. This is not the “personal conviction” of the demonstrators, as described by this tribunal. Our government’s inaction in the face of the greatest crisis in human history is also not unrelated to the public interest.
The trial ended with a hung jury. The decision whether or not to open a new trial rests with the King’s prosecutor, who should decide on Friday June 30, 2023.