Three huge UK court cases next week will test the justice system

  • Post last modified:February 16, 2024
  • Reading time:12 mins read

The week commencing Monday 19 February will see three UK court cases involving climate crisis activists. Protesters from Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil, will be in three separate courts, over three seperate cases. However, their trials are inextricably linked – as they will test not only how the justice system continues to respond to protest, but also just how it views the climate crisis.

The climate crisis: effectively on trial in the UK

We are witnessing genocide and societal collapse in Palestine and the UK government – alongside other powerful western governments – are complicit in it. It has been reported that, similar to the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by Britain and US, that a motivating force behind Israeli military operations in Gaza is fossil fuel expansion.

Last week it was revealed that the ‘safe’ limit for global heating has been breached for a whole year for the first time. Millions of people, including those in Britain, face death, displacement, and disaster on an unprecedented scale. It is now indisputable that fossil fuel expansion needs to stop.

So, on Monday 19 February three trials are due to begin of people involved in three different acts of nonviolent direct action to stop new fossil fuel expansion and protect lives.

The three trials are:

  • Extinction Rebellion JPMorgan Emergency Break Glass – five women charged with criminal damage for breaking glass at JPMorgan’s European HQ, September 2021.
  • Insulate Britain M25 – eight Insulate Britain supporters charged with public nuisance for peacefully stopping traffic on the M25 motorway, September 2021.
  • Just Stop Oil Tunnels Campaign – five Just Stop Oil supporters charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance for occupying tunnels close to Grays Oil Terminal, August 2022.

These trials also come amidst fresh attempts by the UK government to undermine trials by jury and increase the punishments given to people taking part in nonviolent civil resistance.

“Belief in consent”

On 21 February the Court of Appeal will consider whether the last remaining legal defence of ‘belief in consent’ should continue to be available to defendants in nonviolent direct action cases involving damage to property. The Attorney General announced last year that due to the high number of recent acquittals by juries in these cases, they had asked the Court of Appeal to undertake a review.

Due to the coinciding of the JPMorgan Emergency Break Glass trial and the Court of Appeal review, it is possible that the group on trial in front of Judge Reid could be the last defendants allowed to run ‘belief in consent’ as a legal defence.

As a result, more and more defendants of principle could find themselves in court, with no legal defence and prevented from explaining their motivations to a jury of their peers.

Extinction Rebellion co-founder Dr Gail Bradbrook has already been denied the use of this defence and was therefore left without any legal defence in her trial in November 2023 for breaking a window at the Department for Transport.

Judges who deny people acting from their conscience the opportunity to defend themselves in court have been causing alarm both nationally and internationally.

Last month, a report commissioned and released by UN special rapporteur Michel Forst said:

It is very difficult to understand what could justify denying the jury the opportunity to hear the reason for the defendant’s action, and how a jury could reach a properly informed decision without hearing it, in particular at the time of environmental defenders’ peaceful but ever more urgent calls for the government to take pressing action for the climate.

Further details about each case are below.

Extinction Rebellion JPM ’emergency: break glass’

Five women from Extinction Rebellion will be on trial for breaking glass at JPMorgan’s European HQ in London Blackfriars on 1 September 2021.

JPMorgan remains the largest funder of fossil fuel expansion in the world since the Paris Agreement in 2016:

Extinction Rebellion JP Morgan

Of the eight people who undertook this direct action, only five have been summoned to answer charges of criminal damage to the value of £330,000. The trial will be in front of Judge Reid at Inner London Crown Court and is scheduled for seven days. Two of the defendants will be self-representing in court.

Judge Reid sentenced one of the defendants, Amy Pritchard, alongside two others, to prison last year for breaching his ruling not to mention the phrases ‘climate change’ or ‘fuel poverty’ or otherwise speak about the motivations for their actions to the jurors trying them during a trial relating to Insulate Britain’s campaign on M25.

The imprisonment of people for speaking the ‘whole truth’ in British courtrooms sparked a wave of nonviolent direct actions designed to bring to public attention the principle of jury equity, which is deemed to be under threat by leading legal figures.

This is the sixth jury trial of women from Extinction Rebellion who have ‘broken glass’ at major banks and fossil fuel headquarters.

Of the twenty women who have stood trial so far, ten have been found guilty and ten have been acquitted (found not guilty). In July 2022, six medics also broke glass at the JPMorgan’s Canary Wharf Headquarters in anticipation of the hottest day ever recorded in the UK.

The defendants on trial at Inner London Crown Court next week are:

  • Stephanie Aylett, 29, a former medical device representative from St Albans.
  • Pamela Bellinger, 66, a vegetable grower from Leicester.
  • Amy Pritchard, 38, a student from Liverpool.
  • Adelheid Russenberger, 32 PhD student from Richmond, London.
  • Rosemary (Annie) Webster, 67, a retired cook and beekeeper from Dorchester, Dorset.

Insulate Britain supporters who sat on M25

Then, at Reading Crown Court the trial of eight Insulate Britain supporters will also begin. The eight have been charged with public nuisance relating to a peaceful roadblock of Junction 31, Purfleet Interchange on the M25 motorway on 13 September 2021.

Insulate Britain supporters undertook eighteen days of action on the M25 between 13 September and 4 November 2021 to demand that the government insulate Britain’s cold and leaky homes to end fuel poverty and decarbonise the UK, something which the government is legally obliged to do:

Insulate Britain

The trial is due to be heard by Judge Campbell and is scheduled for fifteen days. Several of the defendants will be self-representing in court. The prosecutor representing the Crown is Maryam Syed – a former Judge turned-prosecutor who’s specialism is counter-terrorism.

The defendants are:

  • David Crawford, 70, a retired Engineer from Dorking
  • Gabriella Ditton, 30, a waiter from Norwich.
  • Janine Eagling, 62, a retired IT project manager from London.
  • Lou Lancaster, 58, a teacher from Cambridge.
  • Nick Onley, 61, a musician and community worker from Exmouth.
  • Rob Stuart, 42, a mental healthcare professional from London.
  • Nicholas Till, 68, a university professor from London.
  • Biff Whipster, 56, a retired business analyst from Canterbury.

Tunnel campaign supporters from Just Stop Oil

Also, the trial of five Just Stop Oil supporters will be heard by Judge Graham at Basildon Crown Court. The charges of public nuisance and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance relate to a series of tunnels that were occupied close to Grays Oil Terminal in Essex in August 2022.

Some of the defendants spent thirteen days underground, demanding the government immediately halt all new oil, coal, and gas projects in the UK:

Just Stop Oil Grays

The trial is scheduled for four weeks. Two of the defendants will be self-representing in court.

Judge Graham has been newly appointed to this case after Judge Collery (previously assigned) was shuffled out following increasingly high-profile and widespread criticism of the prison terms he imposed on two Just Stop Oil supporters last year – which were the longest sentences received in modern history for a nonviolent direct action.

The defendants on trial at Basildon Crown Court next week are:

  • Christopher Bennett, 32, a support worker from Bristol.
  • Joe Howlett, 33, a musician from Somerset.
  • Samuel Johnson, 40, a construction worker from Reydon, Suffolk.
  • Dr Larch Maxey, 51, a sustainability researcher and consultant from London.
  • Autumn Wharrie, a mother and grandmother from Stepney.

Xavier Gonzalez Trimmer

Moreover, this week marks one year since Xavier Gonzalez Trimmer, 22 and from London, took his own life just two weeks after being sentenced by Judge Reid at Inner London Crown Court on 31st January 2023.

Xavier had been ‘on’ electronic tag for five months before his death and prior to this had been remanded to prison for twenty one days. Friends have said they feel that Xavier’s experience of prison and the restrictive ‘curfew’ electronic tag conditions he lived with in his final months were a major contributing factor to the suffering that led to his suicide.

Xavier would have been on trial with his friends and colleagues in two of the cases detailed above: the Insulate Britain group and also the Just Stop Oil tunnellers.

Confirming the injustice currently being perpetrated by the UK judiciary, UN special rapporteur Forst said:

Such severe bail conditions have significant impacts on the environmental defenders’ personal lives and mental health and I seriously question the necessity and proportionality of such conditions for persons engaging in peaceful protest.

Featured image via wirestock – Envato Elements, and additional images supplied

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