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The Attorney General plans to launch court proceedings against a 68-year-old retiree who held a sign outside a court notifying jurors of their ability to acquit climate campaigners on the basis of their conscience.
Lawyers for Trudi Warner have confirmed that they have been “notified that the intention of the Attorney General is to commence contempt proceedings against Trudi”, Byline Times can reveal.
In July, the British Solicitor General, Michael Tomlinson KC, one of the Government’s most senior lawyers, threatened Warner – the first person to hold up a sign notifying jurors of their ‘right to acquit’ outside court, with contempt of court proceedings. The offence carries a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment.
Then in August, 40 members of the public, including an Olympic gold medalist, a retired bus driver, a number of health professionals, a group of Quakers and a former government lawyer – who have all held up similar signs – wrote to the Solicitor General to say, “If you prosecute Trudi Warner, you should prosecute us too.”
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Campaign group Defend Our Juries says the stakes have now been raised, with those who have followed Trudi Warner now under investigation for the far more serious offence of perverting the course of justice, one of the few offences to carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The Metropolitan Police has also been accused of ‘absurd overreach’ and ‘an appalling assault on freedom of speech’ after launching a criminal investigation into others for holding signs outside court. Last week, more than a dozen of those who have held up signs have been called in by the police under threat of arrest.
The background to the police investigations are an escalating conflict over measures being taken by the courts to prevent juries reaching not guilty verdicts in political trials, following a pattern of jury acquittals in such cases.
Measures include judges banning those on trial from explaining the context and motivation for their actions, people being sent to prison for using words like ‘climate change’ and ‘fuel poverty’ in court, and judges directing juries that people have no defence.
Judges have also banned defendants and defence lawyers from explaining to a jury that a jury has a right to acquit, whatever the directions from a judge, a spokesperson for Defend Our Juries said.
In response, campaigners have taken to demonstrating against these measures outside Inner London Crown Court and others.
The Met Police’s latest investigations come just a day after Republic’s Graham Smith launched judicial review proceedings against the Met for arresting people holding up banners on Coronation Day last year.
Jennine Walker, Legal Manager at Good Law Project, which is supporting Warner, said: “Juries hold a special place in our legal system because they allow ordinary people to decide what is right and fair. When the state wants to exercise the greatest power it has – that of sending someone to prison – a jury can keep it in check. Trudi Warner’s case shows that the role of juries is being attacked and diminished. It is vital that juries are allowed to perform their vital role freely.
“Let’s not forget why Trudi Warner held that sign. The UK government is not doing enough to prevent the fires and floods that destroy people’s homes and livelihoods and that are a direct result of global heating. The law in our country is not doing enough to hold the people and companies who are destroying our planet to account. And yet ordinary people who are sounding the alarm are being imprisoned.”
Lawyers have now lined up before Warner and her fellow campaigners. Paul Powlesland, a practising barrister, said: “It’s absurd overreach and an appalling assault on freedom of speech for the police to threaten members of the public with serious charges just for holding up signs with the law on them. This will have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression everywhere.”
Tom Goodman, solicitor, added: “I write in support of the action taken by members of the public outside the Inner London Crown Court on 15 May 2023. They were there to support the integrity of jury trials. They sat silently and held placards, which either stated the law or, in the case of the blank placards, highlighted the difficulty of speaking out. I believe what the group did was an appropriate and proportionate response to what they see – and I agree – is a threat to the integrity of jury trials.”
And Monika Sobiecki, barrister and partner at the leading law firm Bindmans, said that “time and time again juries have acquitted according to their own convictions, as is their ancient right.”
She added that the right is “so significant” that there is a marble plaque dedicated to it in the Old Bailey. The right to acquit “has proven itself to be the most important guarantor of our rights against the oppression of Kings, tyrants and hostile and secretive Governments. We should defend it at all costs and lose it at our peril.”
Other leading lawyers have already spoken out on the measures to erode trial by jury. Michael Mansfield KC said: “Jury trial is the jewel in the crown of the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom and has to be preserved and protected.
“The right of a jury to return verdicts according to their ‘convictions’ and ‘consciences’ has been enshrined since the trial of two Quakers in 1670 – William Penn and William Mead…No defendant and no defence counsel should be prohibited from referencing this paramount feature of our system.”
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office confirmed the planned legal action, adding: “Contempt of court is a serious matter and the power to issue proceedings is used sparingly. When investigating potential contempt issues, the Law Officers assess whether the evidential test for the specific form of contempt is met.
“In this case, the Law Officers considered the deliberate act of doing something that interferes or creates a real risk of interference with the administration of justice, and whether it is in the public interest to begin proceedings for contempt…It will now be a matter for the Court.”
Contempt of court is not technically a criminal offence, but it is punishable by imprisonment.
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