A judge who acquitted nine anti-fracking campaigners following protests outside the Horse Hill oil well near Gatwick said he was concerned about the deteriorating relationship between police and protesters.
William Ashworth, who took just over an hour to reach his verdict this afternoon, said:
“It is a shame they did not reach an accommodation to allow the protests to proceed in a manner that did not require arrests.”
District Judge Ashworth said:
“For me it is of some concern that the relationship between protesters and police has deteriorated to the point that there was a lack of engagement and that some protesters have voiced that they are not interested in speaking to the police.”
The trial, which lasted all week, concerned a series of protests during February and March this year when flow testing was being carried out at Horse Hill exploration site. The court heard evidence that protesters walked in front of trucks delivering to the site and leaving.
The prosecution alleged that protests caused delays and were dangerous. It said the protests amounted to an obstruction of the highway and were not reasonable. The defence teams argued that the disruption was limited and the obstruction was a reasonable way for protesters to express their opposition to fracking.
In his summing up, DJ Ashworth said:
“By and large the protest at Horse Hill can be characterised as a dignified and peaceful protest”.
He said of the purpose:
“It was to hold up lorries and by attracting public attention to their existence to publicise the activities of the site.”
But DJ Ashworth said the case centred not on what was happening at Horse Hill but on the human right of freedom of speech. Like all rights it comes with responsibilities, he said.
“Freedom of speech is not a trump card that can be played. Nor is it something the police can be taunted with. It is a fundamental building block of society.”
Acquitting all nine campaigners of obstruction of the highway, he said:
“I accept that the community will have been caused some inconvenience. Some people will have had their journeys delayed. I cannot say that I am sure that you went too far.”
DJ Ashworth said he was “disturbed” by evidence from one campaigner that he had received legal advice that walking the road was lawful.
“It is clearly a matter of fact and degree. It is not a legal principle that this is lawful behaviour.”
The verdict was met with applause, cheers and shouts of “You’re a good man”.
One of the protesters, Paddy Horne, who represented himself, said:
“I am very happy. The fight goes on.”
He added: “It is very important to nip any infringements [of human rights] in the bud.”
Another protester, Isabelle Bish, described the result as “a victory for democracy”. She said:
“It confirms that we do have a lawful right to reasonable obstruction of the highway and peaceful protest.”
Also on trial with Mr Horne and Miss Bish were: Thomas Burke, Stephen Jackson, Neil Lamony, David Powter, Daniel Nye and George Stubbs. The ninth defendant has received personal physical threats from people who said they were investors in Horse Hill. DrillOrDrop has decided not to identify him.
The prosecutor, Jonathan Edwards, argued the protesters had deliberately obstructed the highway, causing significant tailbacks. He said:
“This was the preferred form of direct action to maximise the impact by a small number of campaigners but the effects were disproportionate and therefore unreasonable.”
“The right to protest has to be balanced against the right of the drilling company to go about its lawful business.”
Emma Fitzsimmons, for one of the protesters, said:
“He was speaking truth to power. Maybe they didn’t want to hear. But he is protected by the law regardless of how unpopular this is.”
During the trial, Mr Edwards asked the protesters why they hadn’t used alternative forms of protest. But Sadif Etamadi, defending, said:
“It is not up to the state to dictate to individuals how they should protest or raise awareness of issues of concern.”
Laura Collier, defending six of the group, said:
“Many of these defendants have taken other steps to raise objections of really serious issues. They have organised meetings, written letters, sent objections and yet government policy prevails.
“They have put themselves in jeopardy of criminal convictions for their beliefs. They took to the streets for their beliefs.”
Mr Horne said the silver commander of the policing operation was not clear about what level of obstruction was reasonable and lawful. He said constables at the scene were unclear that limited obstruction was legal and they were inconsistent in their policing. He also said the police had failed to quantify the effects of the protest.
Earlier today, the trial heard evidence that Miss Bish had spent 11 hours in a cell after she was arrested. Mr Stubbs told the court he had been in the road for a short period of time but was not arrested until 40 minutes after the protest ended. The pair had not attended the first three days of the trial and were found guilty of Bail Act offences. They were fined £15.
The ninth defendant said the police commanders were inconsistent in their approaches to the protest. The silver commander had said he would tolerate some walking in front of lorries but it was reported that the bronze commander took a zero tolerance approach to it. The ninth defendant also said police had not used the five step warning process correctly before he was arrested.
No fracking has been carried out at Horse Hill but campaigners are concerned that this will happen in future.
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