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Court Finds Extinction Rebellion Scientists Not Guilty For Action At BEIS

Also, charges dropped against Shell HQ occupation defendants.

Five Scientists for Extinction Rebellion on trial for criminal damage have been acquitted by a magistrates’ court in London. Dr Stuart Capstick, an environmental social scientist, Dr Abi Perrin, a biologist, Emma Smart, an ecologist, Dr Aaron Thierry, an earth-system scientist and Dr Caroline Vincent, a retired scientist and consultant, were facing a charge of criminal damage to the value of £2,000.

They were part of a group of nine scientists who pasted scientific papers, used chalk spray and glued themselves to the windows of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to highlight the danger posed by new oil and gas exploration. [1] [2] They were joined by a dozen other scientists and assisted in their actions by doctors and health professionals.

Defendant Dr Caroline Vincent, said: “With a raft of oppressive laws against legitimate protests being adopted in the UK, it is becoming more and more difficult for the voice of reason to be heard. The government would rather prosecute scientists and suppress legitimate protests than to act on the advice they receive from scientists and their own advisors. But today, the magistrates acknowledged that we were expressing our right to protest, which should be the cornerstone of any democracy.”

In accordance with the recent ruling in relation to the Colston Four appeal [2], which stated that the proportionality of conviction would have to be considered by courts in the case of “minor or temporary” damage, the magistrates ruled that that there was no case to answer and that the scientists were exercising their rights to protest under the Human Rights Act. At the time of the protest, the scientists took great care not to cause any lasting damage by using easily washable and removable substances. Moreover, the prosecution could not produce any evidence of the alleged damage or actual costs to remove the substance.

Also taking place this morning was the plea hearing for Extinction Rebellion’s Shell HQ action which took place on the same day (April 13th 2022), where several people occupied the inside of the building. All 9 people in court today – arrested for Aggravated Trespass – had their charges dropped and case discontinued due to lack of evidence.

Dr Elanor Lewis-Holmes who took part in the action, said, “I am glad that our attempts to inform Shell employees of the danger that their employer poses to our collective future, and to encourage them to take action, have resulted in all criminal charges against us being dropped. Shell is a criminal organisation, who have been found guilty of numerous climate related crimes such as destructive oil spills in the Niger Delta and highly inadequate reductions in CO2 emissions. If left unchecked 1.6% of the entire world’s carbon budget will be used up by this one company in the next 8 years.”

Andy Smith who was also in court today, said, “Shell posted record earnings of £10bn for the three-month period from April when we took action, whilst the everyday person on the street is picking up the bill for increasing gas and oil prices. Something has to change! We just can’t afford this anymore.”

Although the ink is hardly dry on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, brought in by Priti Patel to curtail protest, the Home Office is already bringing in still more legislation in the form of the Public Order Bill that will effectively remove the right to carry out meaningful protest in the UK. [3] The current government professes to be concerned about the public caught in traffic jams as a result of street protests, but the consequence will inevitably be to silence the voice of any effective opposition by civil society to its policies, including by people like the scientists on trial today.

In worrying echoes of the tendency towards authoritarian suppression of protest in countries like Hungary and Russia, it is unclear what will happen to the ability of citizens to make their concerns heard, when the only form of protest allowed in the UK will be obedient and approved marches on the street. As Lord Justice Laws said in 2009 in relation to the right to protest: “Rights worth having are unruly things. Demonstrations and protests are liable to be a nuisance… inconvenient or tiresome”. This right to ‘unruly’ protest is now seriously at risk.

Today the magistrates court ruled in favour of the defendants. But even now this right to protest is not automatically upheld. The four other scientists who took part in the action at BEIS were separately tried and found guilty in September by a district judge. The discrepancy between the outcome of the two trials highlights the arbitrariness of the legal system and the role that some judges play in undermining climate protest. In this earlier trial, the judge refused to consider the legal argument of ‘Necessity’ concerning the impacts of climate change – that disruptive action is being taken to prevent greater harm – and disallowed other arguments relating to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act, in protecting a person’s right to expression, allows for a certain degree of disruption before a person is subject to section 68 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. In June, the Supreme Court shifted the balance in the favour of protest, ruling in the Ziegler appeal that even if there was deliberate obstruction, with more than minimal impact on others, a conviction is not automatically necessary and proportionate, when balanced against a defendant’s rights.

The rights and arguments that the judiciary can refer to, in order to uphold the right of peaceful protestors, still exist but they are shrinking dramatically. What will happen to the doctors and health professionals who feel it is part of their duty of care to protest? What will happen to the voice of the scientists who, after being ignored for years, have found the courage to confront the government directly and call out its refusal to take the imminent danger of climate change seriously? What will happen to the young people who are literally fighting for the right to a liveable future?

Quotes from the defendants of the BEIS action: 

Defendant Emma Smart, said: “Scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades but have been ignored by governments. However, with knowledge comes responsibility and more and more scientists are mobilising in civil disobedience around the world as we are running out of time.”

Defendant Dr Stuart Capstick, said: “The rush for new oil and gas being enabled by the UK government is completely at odds with what the scientific research is telling us needs to happen. The consequences of ignoring that science will be devastating climate impacts that threaten the lives and wellbeing of people around the world. Under normal circumstances, the last thing I would want to do is glue myself to a window, be arrested and put on trial. Unfortunately, this type of action seems to be one of the few ways left to draw attention to the urgency and scale of action needed to tackle the climate crisis.”

Professor Colin Davis, who was found guilty of criminal damage in September, said: “The chalk I sprayed on the windows of the publicly owned BEIS department building needed only a damp cloth to wipe away, unlike the millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution that will be dumped into the atmosphere if the UK government proceeds with its plan to licence new oil and gas fields in the North Sea. Those gases will persist for hundreds of years and will heat our planet even more, directly contributing to millions of deaths from heatwaves, flooding, extreme weather events and crop failure. We need the government to start listening to the warnings coming from scientists and bodies such as the United Nations and the International Energy Agency.”  

Defendant Dr Abi Perrin, said: “In April I watched the secretary general of the UN summarise the latest climate science, stating that our current energy policies put us on a “fast track towards an unlivable world”. Days later the UK government released its energy strategy announcing measures that accelerate climate and environmental breakdown. When governments ignore the warnings of the world’s scientists and even their own climate pledges, it’s hard not to feel desperate. I took part in this peaceful and non-destructive protest action in the hope that it would help raise the alarm about policies that exacerbate the loss, suffering and violence already being experienced around the world.”

Defendant Dr Caroline Vincent, said: “With a raft of oppressive laws against legitimate protests being adopted in the UK, it is becoming more and more difficult for the voice of reason to be heard. The government would rather prosecute scientists and suppress legitimate protests than to act on the advice they receive from scientists and their own advisors. But today, the magistrates acknowledged that we were expressing our right to protest, which should be the cornerstone of any democracy.”

Notes:

[1] Extinction Rebellion scientists: why we glued ourselves to a government department

https://theconversation.com/extinction-rebellion-scientists-why-we-glued-ourselves-to-a-government-department-181799

[2] Acquittal of four who toppled statue unchanged but appeal court decision could affect future trials for ‘significant’ criminal damage https://www.theguardian.com/law/2022/sep/28/colston-four-protesters-cannot-rely-on-human-rights-defence-top-judge-rules

[3] Liberty’s briefing on the Public Order Bill for report stage in the House of Common

https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Libertys-briefing-on-the-Public-Order-Bill-Commons-Report-Stage-September-2022.pdf
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