Anti-fracking campaigners acquitted after judge rules they may not have known about police protest condition

7th April 2014

The prosecution at the trial of a group of anti-fracking campaigners failed to prove they ignored police warnings that they were in breach of a condition on protesting, a court heard today.

District Judge William Ashworth said he had to find the campaigners not guilty of charges under the Public Order Act because he could not be sure the campaigners defied the police or just didn’t know about the condition.

A five-day trial at Brighton Magistrates Court last week heard how the group took part in a sit-down protest in the entrance way to Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site on August 19th . Four of the group locked their arms into plastic tubes to form a square shape. The others sat either inside or next to the square.

Eight of the group were charged with failing to comply with a condition imposed by police under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. This required them to go to a designated protest area on the verge and road, north of the entrance. All nine were also charged with obstructing the highway.

District Judge Ashworth acquitted all eight on the Section 14 charge. He said it was possible that the group had no or insufficient knowledge of the designated protest area. The prosecution had claimed all members of the group defied several police warnings. But Judge Ashworth said: “There were no posted notices. There was no on-line promulgation. None of the defendants in this trial were handed written sheets. I am not sure in each case that the defendants were deliberately avoiding knowledge of the Section 14 direction.”

The judge also noted evidence from the trial that there were at least two other people in the group who were forcibly removed from the entrance way but were not charged with a Section 14 offence. “It is difficult to understand the difference in their behaviour”, he said.

The defence had claimed that the Section 14 order was illegal for a number of reasons (see Defence summing up). But Judge Ashworth said because he wasn’t sure what the defendants knew, he did not need to analyse whether the Section 14 order itself was legitimate.

On the obstruction charge, Judge Ashworth found all four people who were locked-on guilty. But the five people sitting with them were acquitted.

He said he was sure all nine willfully obstructed the highway but he had to take account of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, granted under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

“The state must tolerate a reasonable level of disruption in the interests of free speech”, he said.  But he added: “Articles 10 and 11 are not trump cards to allow any kind of obstruction. They can be interfered with where there is a pressing need to do so.” The need on August 19th, the judge said, was for emergency vehicles to access Cuadrilla’s site.

“The lock-on was planned”, he said. “It required specialist equipment and was designed to frustrate the police.” He said he was sure that all four who took part in it could have voluntarily removed themselves from the tubes or moved away from the area. Judge Ashworth said: “I am therefore sure that those people who were part of the lock-on went too far”.

The other five people, he said, also wished to delay the police. But he said he couldn’t be sure that the obstruction they caused was excessive. For that reason he found them not guilty.

  • District Judge Ashworth said this trial was separate from other cases that arose from the protest on August 19th, including the trial of Caroline Lucas MP. “My judgement does not in any way impact with that trial”, he said.  Miss Lucas is charged, along with Ruth Potts, Ruth Jarman, Sheila Menon and Josef Dobraszczyk, with obstructing the highway and failing to comply with a Section 14 condition under the Public Order Act. That case ran out of time on March 28th and resumes on April 17th. A verdict is expected by the end of  that day.

[Updated on April 8th to clarify this trial was distinct from that of Caroline Lucas]

Sentencing details

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