Appeal court judges have quashed jail sentences against three men imprisoned for taking part in an anti fracking protest outside Cuadrilla’s shale gas site.
After a hearing this morning, the judges said the sentences were “manifestly excessive.”
The three men, who were appearing by video link from Preston Prison, raised their arms and cheered. People in the public gallery burst into song.
Three weeks ago, soil scientist Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, and piano restorer Richard Roberts, 36, were jailed for 16 months. Teacher Rich Loizou, 31, was jailed for 15 months. They are thought to be the first campaigners to be sent to prison in the UK for taking part in an anti-fracking protest.
They had been convicted of public nuisance after a protest lasting a total of 99 hours outside Cuadrilla’s shale gas site near Blackpool. The protest, in July 2017, involved the men and another campaigner, climbing onto the cabs of lorries delivering to the site at Preston New Road.
The judges today quashed the jail sentences. They replaced them conditional discharges for two years to take account of the three weeks the men had spent in prison.
The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Ian Burnett, said:
“We have concluded than an immediate custodial sentence in the case of these appellants was manifestly excessive.
“In our judgement the appropriate sentence which should have been imposed on the 26th of September was a community order with a significant requirement of unpaid work.”
The Lord Chief Justice said:
“These appellants have now spent three weeks in jail, which is the equivalent of a six week sentence. As a result, and only for that reasons, we have concluded that the only appropriate sentence is a conditional discharge for two years.
“We quash the imprisonment sentence.”
The ruling is to be published later.
Outside the court, a statement was read on behalf of the three men:
“Today’s decision affirms that when people peacefully break the law out of a moral obligation to prevent things such as the fossil fuel industry, they should not be sent to prison.
“The fracking industry threatens to industrialise our beautiful countryside. It will force famine, flooding and many other disasters on the world’s most vulnerable communities by exacerbating climate change.
“Fracking is beginning right now. So there has never been a more critical moment to take action. Your planet needs you.”
After the hearing, Rich Loizou’s father, Platon, said:
“We are just delighted. Today justice has really been done
We should not have been here in the first place. We have now got to concentrate our efforts against this industry”.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, who represented the men pro bono at this morning’s hearing, welcomed the sentence:
“This case was about a business having to transport maggots by wheelbarrow and a road being blocked by a police van. There were traffic jams, which was regrettable. But we are not a country that sends people to prison for traffic jams and inconvenience to local businesses.”
The court had heard that the judge at the trial, Robert Altham, had family links to a company that supplies oil and gas rigs. His sister had publicly supported Cuadrilla’s fracking plans in Lancashire and the shale gas industry in general.
The judges would not allow this ground to be used to appeal against the sentence because there had not been enough time to consider it properly. Ms Brimelow said:
“We are now looking at an appeal against conviction in the light of information received which might give the appearance of bias”.
A complaint against Judge Altham is now being considered by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office.
Michelle Easton, the partner of Richard Roberts, said friends and family would collect the men from Preston jail later today.
“We’re absolutely ecstatic this is the best possible outcomes. A massive injustice has just been righted.”
They would be attending a climate change rally outside Preston New Road on Saturday, she said.
Rosalind Blevins, mother of Simon Roscoe Blevins, urged people to take personal actions to reduce their energy use and to use clean energies, in response to the warnings issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a week ago.
“We are all in this together and we have to act now. We can make this change if we pull together.”
“Right to protest is fundamental to democracy”
Robert Lizar solicitors, which represented the three, said:
“The Court of Appeal have recognised the right to peace protest is a fundamental right in a democratic society. The rights to freedom of assembly are clearly protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are delighted that this principle has been upheld today.”
Friends of the Earth had intervened in the case because it argued that the sentences were disproportionate. Katie de Kauwe, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, who was in court, said:
“We are very pleased that the Court of Appeal has today found that the custodial sentences were manifestly excessive and quashed them. This is a great outcome. The Court thanked Friends of the Earth for its intervention and we are awaiting their full reasoning.”
Emma Norton, Head of Legal Casework at Liberty, which also intervened in the case said:
“The right to protest is fundamental to democracy, and civil disobedience plays a critical role in voicing the conscience of a community when the law falls short of justice.
“When people break the law, they rightly expect to face fair consequences, but the disproportionate punishment of peaceful protesters betrays our values as an open society where we can stand up to power, and risks deterring people from exercising their right to dissent.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, welcomed the decision to quash the sentences.
“We stand in solidarity with the activists and thank them for standing up to the further destruction of our environment by this Tory Government”.
“Lancashire invited men to join fracking front line”
Nick Danby, a Lancashire resident, attended the men’s trial and sentencing.
“We were horrified when these three men were given immediate custodial sentences. These three should never have been sent to prison in the first place and we are delighted to hear today that their appeals have been upheld and that they are to be released with immediate effect.
“The people of Lancashire invited the men to join our protest on the frontlines of fracking in the UK. In a mature democracy, it is essential that citizens are entitled to peaceful protest. If peaceful protest is not tolerated then we no longer live in a democracy. Our best wishes and thanks go to them, their friends and their families.”
The co-leader of the Green Party, Jonathan Bartley, who was outside the court this morning, said:
“The release of three anti-fracking heroes from jail is a victory for peaceful protest. These sentences were not only heavy handed and wrong, they were part of a nationwide clamp down on dissent making it harder and harder for campaigners to stand up against climate destruction.
“The Green Party stands shoulder to shoulder with Richard, Richard and Roscoe as they celebrate their freedom today. The anti-fracking movement is stronger than ever. We will not give up this fight until Britain is free of this dirty and destructive industry.”
“Sentences intended as a warning”
Kevin Blowe, of the police monitoring group, Netpol, said:
“The original convictions were clearly intended to send a warning to others and are therefore a part of the continued efforts to close down space for campaigners to meaningfully resist fracking.
“We have been highlighting for some time now the ‘chilling effect’ attempts to frighten people away from taking part in protests are having on the right to freedom of assembly.
“This week, police in Lancashire again arrested protesters at the fracking site at Preston New Road for “public nuisance”, although these charges were subsequently dropped.
“If senior officers thought they had discovered a strategy to use charges for this serious offence, backed up with the threat of potential imprisonment, to try to deter anti-fracking campaigners, it now seems that strategy is in tatters”.”
“Evidence that government pushed too hard”
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said:
“Today’s verdict is a major cause for celebration not just for activists, but for everyone whose home, community and climate are threatened by reckless industrialisation. Britain’s justice system has long recognised the vital contribution peaceful protest makes in a democracy, and we thank the High Court for upholding that principle. This is still a country where dissent is tolerated and speech is free.
“There is still great need for brave voices to speak truth to power. The government has been ruthless in their determination to push fracking onto a deeply unenthusiastic nation. Property rights have been removed, protections lifted, regulations weakened, and the security state has thrown millions at shielding this loss making industry from growing public opposition. If the government continues to follow this approach, they will meet more and more resistance, from climate scientists, from activists, from local government, from voters, and from their own backbenches.
“This case should be seen as a signal that they have pushed too hard and too far against public opinion for a democratic government.”
This morning, the court of appeal heard submissions from Kirsty Brimelow that the jail terms imposed by Preston Crown Court had interfered with the protesters’ human rights and were excessive and disproportionate.
Ms Brimelow said there was no evidence to support the judge’s sentencing remarks that there had been mass disruption as a result of the protest.
She said evidence given at the trial by an elderly woman about having to walk for an hour because a bus was diverted may have referred to a different protest. She said the judge had given excessive attention to this account and evidence of business disruption.
She also said there was no evidence to support the judge’s conclusion that the three men would reoffend if they were not sent to prison.
She criticised the judge for ruling that the three men could not use their opposition to fracking to explain their actions during the trial but the judge “used their deeply held beliefs against them in sentencing.” More details to come on the grounds of the appeal
Craig Macgreagor, prosecuting, maintained that the protest had led to mass disturbance. He said the length of the prison term had not been excessive, given the duration of the protest.
He also said that the three men had not shown remorse until evidence was given to the court about the effects of their actions.
The pro-fracking group, Lancashire for Shale, which had welcomed the jail sentences last month, said today:
“We can debate the fairness of the original sentences all day long, but what is totally inarguable is that these three men were found guilty by a Lancashire jury of breaking the law, having ‘criminally disrupted’ people using the A583 Preston New Road. As we’ve pointed out before, these are not victimless crimes, with ordinary people and businesses unfairly hit in the pocket as a result of direct action protests.”
Reporting from this hearing was made possible by individual donations to DrillOrDrop