Call for legal consistency in Balcombe anti-fracking trials

The defence solicitor in a court case arising from the Balcombe anti-fracking demonstrations said today the law should be applied consistently to all the protestors who were arrested.

Shahida Begum was speaking during the trial of Nick Ward, an environmental campaigner from Cambridge, who was arrested at Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site at Balcombe on September 20th last year. He was charged with obstructing the highway and criminal damage. Mr Ward denies the charges.

Miss Begum told Horsham Magistrates Court Mr Ward’s conduct on the obstruction charge had little to distinguish it from that of another protestor whose separate trial in November last year was discontinued. In that case, District Judge Peter Crabtree questioned whether an offence had been committed and the Crown Prosecution Service decided it would not be in the public interest to continue.

Miss Begum said “There is a principle in public law that people should be dealt with consistently.” She asked “Why was that case not proceeded with when the facts are indistinguishable?” She said all the Balcombe anti-fracking cases were being handled by the same member of staff at the Crown Prosecution Service so there was no reason why they should not be dealt with consistently.

The prosecution alleged that Mr Ward caused an obstruction by walking with his dog in front of police officers escorting a lorry into Cuadrilla’s site at Lower Stumble in Balcombe. The court saw a video clip, lasting about three minutes, which showed the police escort, followed by Mr Ward being arrested and put in a police van.

PC Jack Simms, the arresting officer who is based with Kent Police, said the sole purpose of the police was to allow the vehicle into the site. “We were there for the safety of the lorry and the protestors.”

PC Simms said Mr Ward had been moving slower than everyone else. But, under cross-examination by Miss Begun, he acknowledged that Mr Ward had kept moving.

The court also heard prosecution evidence that when Mr Ward was put in a cell at Crawley Police station he had asked for a pencil. He is alleged to have used the pencil to write on the cell wall: “Fracking contaminates H2O. It is a crime against the natural world,” and “Fracking is criminal pollution”. Jonathan Edwards, prosecuting, said Mr Ward also added the words “fracking” and “= contaminated” either side of a notice which said “Not drinking water”.

The trial was adjourned after the prosecution case. The defence proposes to use Articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on Human Rights to support Mr Ward’s not guilty plea. Article 10 gives people a right to freedom of expression and Article 11 protects participants in peaceful assemblies from interference by the state.

District Judge Adrian Turner said the case hinged on whether Mr Ward’s arrest and prosecution were justified. But he said public safety was an important consideration. “I am not aware of any case, European or domestic, where it was held that the right of expression trumped the safety of the public.”

He adjourned the trial until March 7th for the two sides to exchange further legal documents.

3 replies »

  1. I hope it can be clarified that the argument of ‘public safety’ cannot be used to justify abuse of people’s Right to Protest. In almost every protest situation, given that there will be other people around, a point about safety can be raised, but, in the reverse of District Judge Turner’s way of looking at it,- “I am not aware of any case, European or domestic, where it was held that the right of expression trumped the safety of the public”. it should instead be, that ‘safety of the public” must never be used to trump the Human Right to Protest – or Freedom of Expression. For example, if someone holds a banner, and there is someone else nearby, that could be cited as an issue of public safety – (what if they dropped the banner?!) – but it is also an infringement of Human Rights to not allow banners to be held.. Judge’s should look very hard to see if they actually harbour prejudice about protest, and if they can’t see it themselves, we might.

    • Hi Beki
      Thanks for your comment. You make a very good point. I included the judge’s remarks on this issue because it seemed very significant to me. If this is how the law is interpreted there are serious implications.

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