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Courts to Face Wave of Protests as Climate Campaigners Say Right to Jury Trial ‘Under Attack’

Climate campaigners say the right to jury trial faces unprecedented threats – with several activists facing court proceedings for telling jurors of their ‘right to acquit’ on conscience

Lawyers stage a protest outside the Inner London Crown Court this July, in response to the judge’s ruling that climate activists on trial cannot speak about climate change. Photo: Vuk Valcic/Alamy

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Over a dozen protests are being planned to stand up for the right of juries to acquit climate activists on issues of conscience – a right those participating in direct action say is increasingly under attack. 

A new campaign – Defend Our Juries – will stage demonstrations outside more than a dozen crown courts in England on 25 September, in a national day of action. London, Bristol and Manchester are among cities likely to see protests near courts.

Recent years have seen several high-profile criminal cases against climate activists dropped after more than 80% of jurors voted to acquit them on the basis of their convictions.

In April 2021, the ‘Shell 7’ faced trial for criminal damage. Two years before, they had protested at Shell’s London HQ, pouring fake oil onto the steps and walls of the oil major’s building in Waterloo. They broke windows, painted messages like “Shell Kills”, and then waited for police to come and arrest them. 

The jury listened to their motivations – the urgent need to tackle fossil fuel giants and the climate crisis – and, as is their centuries-old right, opted to decide based on their conscience. Six of the seven were acquitted. 

This January, a jury also acquitted Insulate Britain campaigners who had blocked the M4; and in February a jury acquitted ‘Burning Pink’ campaigners for “unsolicited redecoration” – covering in paint – the Conservative and Labour HQs.

However, groups like Extinction Rebellion and Plan B say there is now a concerted backlash in the courts coming from the Government against the right to acquit. 

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How the legal system is silencing climate activists fighting for their right to speak up about the crisis

Trudi Warner, a 68-year-old retired social worker, was the first person to hold up a sign outside a climate trial informing jurors of their ‘right to acquit’ a defendant based on their conscience. She now faces potential contempt of court proceedings, as well as a threat of trial for “perverting the course of justice”, which in theory has a maximum sentence of life in prison.

When 24 people replicated Trudi’s action in May outside the Inner London Crown Court, all were referred to the Attorney General for contempt of court. They included Quakers, health professionals, a priest, gold medal Olympian Etienne Stott, legal professionals and a retired police officer.

Three people who put up posters displaying the same message along the road by the same court were also arrested for perverting the course of justice. They are awaiting charges, a spokesperson for Defend Our Juries said. 

Forty activists subsequently wrote to the Attorney General saying that, if they sought to prosecute Trudi Warner, “you need to prosecute us too” – because they had done exactly the same thing. They plan to repeat Warner’s actions of holding up signs outside court buildings during climate trials.

A similar action took place at Isleworth Crown Court this 17 July, where another major direct action trial was taking place. The next day, the jury was discharged before it could consider a verdict, in response to the protest. A few days later, campaigners held blank signs outside instead – the international symbol of state silencing and repression. 

Several current climate action trials have court orders meaning that they cannot be reported on. 

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The Defend Our Juries campaign argues that it would be “politically impossible” for the Government to remove the right to acquit based on conscience – a right that dates back to the Magna Carta. “So the courts have surreptitiously sought to undermine the substance of jury trial, while preserving its appearance,” it says.

The group alleges that, over the past year, courts have banned those engaged in campaigns of “political resistance” from explaining their motivations and beliefs to the jury, including disallowing or ignoring relevant evidence and witnesses – including expert testimony on the Government’s failures on the climate crisis.

Several judges have also told jurors that protestors’ motives are “irrelevant” and must be ignored. And a number of activists have gone to prison for breaching court bans on saying phrases like “climate change” or “fuel poverty” during proceedings – in other words, explaining their motives.

One campaigner alleged that jury trials are being turned into “sham trials” due to the heavy-handed restrictions. 

More information about the new campaign can be found here.

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