There were cheers and shouts of thank you from the packed public gallery of Brighton Magistrates Court this afternoon (9/1/14) as the first group of anti-fracking campaigners arrested at the Balcombe protest last summer were found not guilty of all charges.
Eleven protestors* had been charged with obstructing the highway on July 26th by sitting on or near a log near the entrance to Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site. One of the eleven was also charged with assaulting a police officer by spilling tea over her arm. All the defendants had denied the charges.
Giving his verdict at the end of the three-day trial, District Judge William Ashworth said the case focussed on the limits of freedom of speech. He said for a protest to be reasonable under the law, it had to be non-violent and could not obstruct the highway.
He said in this case there had been an obstruction and it had been deliberate. Deliveries to the Cuadrilla drilling site had been held up. But, the judge said, the road had been partially closed for road surfacing on the day of the protest and the obstruction was just off the road, in the site entrance.
District Judge Ashworth described the protest as dignified. He said: “I am also satisfied that a large number of you considered this was not the highway and did not see there was a problem. I accept that there were people walking in the road and children playing. There was a police presence but you were not asked by Cuadrilla or the police to get off the log before midday.”
The judge said: “Because of the movement of the log, it [the protest] was probably not reasonable”. But he said he was not sure. “My duty is quite clear. I am required to acquit you all.”
On the assault charge, the judge said he was satisfied the spillage of tea over PC Charlotte Pittman was not done recklessly and had been an accident.
This is the second court success for the Balcombe anti-fracking campaigners. In November the prosecution asked for the charge to be discontinued half way through a trial of a woman campaigner after District Judge Peter Crabtree questioned whether an offence had been committed. About 25 further trials arising out of the Balcombe protests are due to be heard between now and April, including that of the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.
*The campaigners charged with obstructing the highway were: Ian Freeston and Mark Mansbridge, both 52 and from Lewes; Samantha Duncan and Richard Millar, both 30 and from Brighton; Michael Atkins, 37, of Bristol; Frances Crack, 31, of Cardiff; Paul Deacon, 50, formerly of Worthing but now living in St Jean du Gare, France; Ezra Lynch, 31, of no fixed abode; Justin Preece, 44, of Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan; Nancy Walker, 25, of London; and Marcin Swiercz, 36. Mr Atkins was also charged with assaulting PC Pittman.