100% acquittal of anti-fracking protesters charged with public order offences at Balcombe

1st May 2014

All the anti-fracking campaigners charged with public order offences by Sussex Police after last year’s protests at Balcombe have now been found not guilty.

A total of 14 people were prosecuted under the Public Order Act, including the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroliine Lucas. All the cases went to trial and all were thrown out by several different district judges. The final case – that of Balcombe poet Simon Welsh – finished this morning with another acquittal.

The public order charges arising from the Balcombe protests involved four trials, which used a total of 16 days of court time (not including case preparation and reviews). During the trials, the prosecution called at least 30 police officers to give evidence and an additional officer sat through all the cases on each day. Defence barristers spent a total of 37 days in court.

One case was brought under Section 4a of the Public Order Act, which deals with allegations of harassment, alarm or distress. The other 13 cases involved Section 14 of the Public Order Act, which allows police to impose conditions on protesters. On two occasions at Balcombe, the then chief constable, Martin Richards, and his then deputy, Giles York, used Section 14 to designate protest areas on the road outside the entrance to Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site. For these Section 14 prosecutions to succeed, the police had to prove that the protesters knowingly failed to comply with the conditions to go to the designated areas.

But in each of these cases, district judges criticised the way the police implemented the condition.

  • In Mr Welsh’s case and in the trial of eight people taking part in a sit-down protest next to Cuadrilla’s gate, there was evidence that the police did not distribute paper notices of the conditions.
  • In one case it emerged that a police officer did not know where the designated area was.
  • Instructions given by police over loud hailers were drowned out by the noise of the protest.
  • Campaigners complained that they did not understand the conditions or know why they had been arrested.
  • Statements of some arresting officers contradicted video footage recorded by police evidence gatherers.

In two of the trials, district judges also questioned the legality of the conditions issued under the Act. In the case of Miss Lucas and four other campaigners, District Judge Tim Pattinson ruled that the condition was unlawful. He said the senior police officer who issued the conditions was not authorised to do so, he was wrong to issue them and they were so vague and unclear as to be meaningless. In Mr Welsh’s case, District Judge Peter Crabtree said the police had a “muddled understanding” of the legislation. Both judges said the police needed to be more careful in the way they worded the notices of conditions.

Sussex Police were asked to comment on the failure of the cases and the judges’ comments. Chief Superintendent Paul Morrison said: “We recognise that people have a democratic right to peacefully protest in the UK and that public protests have been and continue to be an important part of British life.

“Protests are an important safety valve for strongly-held views and the right to protest in public is a synthesis of iconic freedoms: free assembly and free speech.

“In policing these events we have the difficult job of trying to balance these rights and freedoms with those of the local communities, as well as those conducting their lawful businesses.

“We are looking at the judgements and the implications for policing future events of this nature, but I am satisfied that public order policing in Sussex is conducted professionally and fairly. At the time of the Balcombe protests, we consulted at great length with a leading human rights lawyer when considering our plans and their advice guided our approach and actions.

“Following charging decisions, we liaised closely with the CPS to ensure that there remained a realistic prospect of conviction in these cases.”

  • There is one trial remaining from the Balcombe protests. Two people are accused of assaulting police officers. The case is due to be heard at Brighton Magistrates Court in September.

    Six people have appealed against guilty verdicts on offences including obstructing the highway, assaulting police officers and criminal damage. Their cases have still to be heard.

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