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Police use of Public Order Act tested in anti-fracking protest trial

The Chief Constable of Sussex, Martin Richards, will be called to give evidence at an anti-fracking trial, which could become a test case for the use of the Public Order Act against protestors.

The case involves poet Simon Welsh, the first Balcombe resident to be arrested during the protests outside Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site in the village last year. Mr Welsh, 34, wrote the Balcombe Anthem, a protest poem sung by environmental campaigners to the tune of Jerusalem. He was arrested on September 10th 2013 for allegedly failing to comply with a police notice, issued under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. The notice, signed by Martin Richards, required protestors to use a designated assembly area on the verge opposite Cuadrilla’s site. It is alleged that Mr Welsh was outside that area. He denies the charge.

The defence proposes to use Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The case is expected to centre on whether the action of the Chief Constable in issuing the notice was proportionate and whether Sussex Police was inconsistent in its approach to prosecutions. As well as Mr Richards, the trial is expected to hear from an environmental campaigner who was charged with the same offence, on the same day and in similar circumstances to Mr Welsh, but against whom the charge was later discontinued.

The case opened at Brighton Magistrates Court this morning (14/1/14) before District Judge Peter Crabtree. He said he wanted to make a ruling on the legal arguments before hearing two other trials involving 12 campaigners charged with the same offence arising from the Balcombe protests. They include the Brighton MP, Caroline Lucas, whose trial is scheduled to start on March 24th.

District Judge Crabtree described Mr Welsh’s case as “complicated” and adjourned it until March 18th.

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