Four campaigners who spent a total of 99 hours on top of lorries delivering to Cuadrilla’s shale gas site could become the first people to be jailed for an anti-fracking protest.
The four, who have been convicted of public nuisance, were in court for sentencing today. But the judge, His Honour Robert Altham, delayed his decision on whether they should go to prison until the morning (25/9/2018).
Rich Loizou, 31, a teacher from Devon, Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, a soil scientist, from Sheffield, and Richard Roberts, 36, a piano restorer from London, denied the offences at a seven-day trial in August. They were found guilty by a jury on 22 August and were told to expect immediate custodial sentences.
The fourth man, Julian Brock, 47, of Devon, had admitted the charge at a separate hearing.
They are believed to be the first anti-fracking campaigners to face a jail sentence for their protests.
Preston Crown Court heard that the public nuisance offence had no sentencing guidelines and very little legal precedent. DrillOrDrop report on prosecution submissions
Kirsty Brimelow QC, for Richard Roberts, said the cases quoted by the prosecution, where people had been jailed, were not relevant because they had not involved protests.
She said the court should take into account the motivation of the four men and the fact that this was a political protest. She said it would be the first time that the law on public nuisance had been used to jail environmental campaigners since the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932.
Ms Brimelow said the four were protesting not just for themselves but for future generations and the future of the planet.
“It is very important to keep very firmly in mind the context which is peaceful protest. The court should tread very carefully when dealing with public protest.
“Everyone has a right to freedom of expression. This can include campaigning in the road. It can include direct action protests.”
She said the judge should consider what she described as the “huge amount of evidence” about the likely damage from increased carbon emissions. 75 million people could be displaced and one in four species could become extinct in the coming decades, she said.
Ms Brimelow said the four sought to draw attention to the decision by the government to overrule Lancashire County Council, which had refused planning permission for fracking at the Preston New Road site.
She referred to a ruling by Lord Hoffmann, which said people who broke the law in support of firm beliefs were sometimes vindicated by history. He said:
“It is a mark of a civilised society that it can accommodate protest.”
The prosecutor, Craig MacGregor, had argued that the protest caused traffic disruption, inconvenience to businesses and additional costs.
But Ms Brimelow said the protest had not caused damage. Delays to motorists were caused as much by other protesters in the road as by the four men on the lorries, she said.
The protest lasted for almost 100 hours, from 25-29 July 2017. But Ms Brimelow said:
“It is significant that the level of disruption was predominantly on one day. Although the protest went on for four days, the traffic was flowing by 5pm on the first day.”
The police introduced a contraflow, which she said had been used regularly to accommodate protesters on Preston New Road at this time.
Mr Roberts’ lorry was on the centre part of the road and was not blocking the carriageway, she said. Mr Roberts had asked for the lorry to be moved to a nearby layby and had demonstrated that he could hold on safely while the vehicle was moving. But this had been refused by police.
Ms Brimelow also questioned whether the traffic management plan for the Preston New Road site had been working effectively, because Cuadrilla had given the police only 15 minutes notice of the convoy. Judge Altham described this as “a very unattractive submission”.
She also said the use music during the protest, which had been criticised by the prosecution, had been intended to create a carnival atmosphere.
Mr MacGregor had said lorry drivers had complained of being intimidated and of being required to stay in their cabs. But Ms Brimelow said this was not supported by the video evidence. She said Mr Roberts had developed a good relationship with the driver of the lorry he was on. That driver had spent some nights in a hotel and had been in and out of his cab. He had joked about the overtime, she said.
She said her client had a strong sense of civic duty and regularly worked for free on community projects. He was remorseful about the distress he had caused to people affected by the protest.
Charlotte Kenny, for Simon Blevins, said her client had very deeply held principles on environmental issues. He was greatly appreciated by academic colleagues at the University of Sheffield. He worked with children in disadvantaged part of the city and mentored young people, she said.
“I would ask whether it is in community’s and society interest to send him to prison. I ask your honour to draw back and suspend the sentence.”
Ms Kenny said Mr Blevins had been “shocked to the core”. The conviction would have a huge impact on his life.
Richard Brigden, for Rich Loizou, said his client should not be sentenced to prison because the road had been closed.
The footage showed Mr Loizou’s lorry was at the back of the convoy and was not in position that prevented anyone entering or leaving their homes, he said. Once protesters in the road had been removed the police introduced a contraflow and the traffic began to move.
He urged the judge:
“When you sentence it is important to look at Mr Loizou’s specific context. He was on top of the lorry for 45 hours. On the evidence of residents’ difficulties: he was down by then.
The hearing resumes at 10am tomorrow (26/9/2018) with more submissions from Mr Brigden, followed by sentencing later in the morning.
Reporting on this hearing has been made possible with individual donations from DtrillOrDrop readers