An environmental campaigner has won his legal challenge against conviction for obstruction at the Balcombe anti-fracking protests over a year ago.
Nick Ward, of Cambridge, was arrested on September 20th 2013 after walking for about three minutes in front of a lorry visiting Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling site in West Sussex. He accepted that he had slowed down the lorry but argued that this was an accepted part of peaceful protest.
Hove Trial Centre heard that many other campaigners had taken similar action during protests about Cuadrilla’s operation in Balcombe. But they had not been arrested, or if they were, their cases were dropped before they reached court.
Judge Anthony Niblett said this afternoon: “We have come to the conclusion that in the circumstances of this case we are going to allow the appeal to obstruction of the highway”.
Mr Ward failed to overturn a conviction for criminal damage. This case was brought after he wrote two anti-fracking slogans in pencil on the wall of his cell while he was waiting to be interviewed by police. The slogans read: Fracking is criminal pollution” and “Fracking = contamination”.
His barrister, Shahida Begum, argued that Mr Ward felt he had exhausted every opportunity to express his point of view and had not been listened to. She said Mr Ward had not damaged the cell permanently or reduced its use or value. He had reported the writing to police, apologised and offered to remove it. She said the charge had been disproportionate and the crown had not shown why there was any public interest in bringing the case to trial.
This morning, Mr Ward told the court that he had regarded his arrest for obstruction as unlawful. He said at the time of the criminal damage, he had been in the cell for about four hours and was in a distressed and anxious state. He was dehydrated and had asked for water, which had been slow to arrive.
Mr Ward said above the tap in the cell there was a warning notice saying it was not drinking water. He said he wrote the slogans because fracking could mean that in future no water would be drinkable.
But Judge Niblett said: “Damage is damage. The views of the person causing the damage are wholly irrelevant”.
Refusing the appeal, the judge said: “This court finds that in this case there was damage caused”. He said there had been no infringement of Mr Ward’s freedom of expression.
He said it would be “open charter” if the prosecuting authorities did not take action against damage to a police station. “We are quite satisfied there was no lawful excuse, however passionate the views of Mr Ward”.
The court gave Mr Ward a conditional discharge of six months and ordered him to pay costs of £135 and a victim surcharge of £15.
After the hearing, Mr Ward said it had been worth bring the appeal and he was pleased that his conviction for obstruction had been quashed. “I was quite devastated by the obstruction charge because I had always kept moving in front of the lorry.”
He said his experience of the legal process had not deterred him from opposing fracking. “I’ve become a more effective activist because I’ve learned about the court system”, he said.