1st May 2014
Cheers from the public gallery greeted the words of District Judge Peter Crabtree: “Mr Welsh you are free to go.”
Simon Welsh, the only Balcombe resident arrested at last year’s anti-fracking protests, was acquitted this morning after a three-day trial. He had denied failing to comply with a condition imposed by the then Sussex Chief Constable, Martin Richards, under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. This required campaigners to use a designated protest area on the verge opposite Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site.
Just before his arrest, Mr Welsh, 34, of High Street, Balcombe was part of a group of about 20 people singing in the entrance way to the site. They were performing the Balcombe Anthem, an anti-fracking poem written by Mr Welsh and sung to the tune of Jerusalem.
The case hinged on whether the police conditions were lawful and whether Mr Welsh knew about them.
During the trial, police officers gave evidence that they spoke to Mr Welsh about the protest area while he was singing. An announcement had also been made on a loud hailer. The prosecution had claimed the Mr Welsh deliberately ignored instructions from police.
But Mr Welsh had given evidence that he was not aware of the police because he was so involved in his singing. He described a heightened state where he was entirely focussed on the music. When he was arrested immediately after the song finished, he described how he had no idea why he was being taken away.
District Judge Crabtree, sitting at Eastbourne Magistrates Court, accepted this explanation. “There is a real possibility that you had not registered you were being spoken to by police officers or registered what was being said. There is a reasonable degree of uncertainty about your actual knowledge of the conditions of the notice”.
He said the loud hailer was drowned out by the noise of the crowd and there was no evidence that Mr Welsh had been given a written notice about the conditions. There was also no evidence that he had seen information about the conditions on the Sussex Police website.
DJ Crabtree criticised evidence of PC Lee Middlebrook, who said Mr Welsh had flailed his arms about when he was arrested. The judge said this was contradicted by video evidence filmed by police evidence gatherers.
He also questioned the legality of the police order. The police had a “muddled understanding” of the legislation, he said, and the evidence used by the police to justify the conditions was “vulnerable to attack” by the defence. DJ Crabtree also questioned whether there was a risk of serious disorder, disruption or intimidation on September 10th, the day of Mr Welsh’s arrest. Former Chief Constable Richards had given evidence that he regarded September 10th as a “trial run” for using the Section 14 order the following day.
DJ Crabtree said if notices with conditions were to be issued “they needed to be addressed in the most careful terms, with legal advice”.
After the hearing, Mr Welsh said: “The truth has set me free. Never before would I have believed that a judge would take heart consciousness into consideration over visible, measurable evidence. I think Mr Crabtree surprised himself with this.”
On the pavement outside the court, Mr Welsh led a group of supporters singing the Balcombe Anthem and a protest version of the National Anthem.