Court restrictions on climate protesters ‘deeply concerning’, say leading lawyers | Climate crisis

The restrictions imposed on peaceful climate protesters who were being tried in criminal courts were part of a “deeply disturbing” pincer movement limiting their right to free speech, leading lawyers told the Guardian.

Three Insulate Britain activists are serving prison sentences for contempt of court for violating a judge’s decision not to tell a jury about the climate crisis, energy poverty or the history of the peaceful civil rights movement.

All three – David Nixon, Amy Pritchard and Giovanna Lewis – were jailed after facing juries in separate trials to explain their motivation for taking direct action.

They were tried for disorderly conduct for their involvement in a roadblock in the City of London in October 2021 as part of the Insulate Britain campaign, which says it wants to pressure the government to insulate British homes to reduce carbon emissions. Nixon was convicted of disorderly conduct. The jury has not reached a verdict in the Lewis and Pritchard trial, and a decision is expected on March 31 as to whether there will be a retrial.

The rulings were handed down by Judge Silas Reid at the Inner London Crown Court. Addressing the jury, the judge said the trials were not about climate change or whether the actions of Insulate Britain and similar organizations should be praised or condemned, but whether protesters caused a public nuisance. He said the defendants’ motivations for acting the way they did did not matter.

The Guardian understands that similar rulings restricting the freedom of expression available to peaceful protesters have been made in other courts.

Katy Watts, a lawyer with advocacy organization Liberty, said it was “deeply disturbing” to see protesters imprisoned just for giving a reason for their actions. “We all have the right to stand up for the causes we believe in. But we’ve seen something of a pincer movement in terms of convention rights in protest cases that [is] limiting our rights more and more,” she said.

“The way some of the protest trials, in particular those involving climate activists, were conducted interfered with the defendants’ rights to freedom of expression.”

Nixon, a Barnsley guardian, was sentenced to eight weeks in prison for contempt of court after trying to explain to a jury at his trial the link between isolation and tackling the climate crisis. Before being stopped by the judge, he said, “You couldn’t hear these truths because this court wouldn’t let me tell them.”

Nixon later told the court that he was unable to explain to the jury why he had taken the direct “soul-destroying” action. He was told that he would spend half of his sentence in prison.

Reid told him that the criminal courts exist solely to determine whether the prosecution has proven the defendants guilty. “You said the court does not uphold what it is supposed to defend,” he said. “You were wrong about that. This court is here to determine if people have committed crimes.”

Pritchard and Lewis were sentenced last Friday to seven weeks in prison for contempt. Lewis, a Dorset councilor, told the court why she broke the judge’s decision. “Every year there are thousands of deaths in the UK due to energy poverty and thousands of deaths worldwide due to climate change. There is no other choice than to give voice to the truth and not be silenced,” she said.

Pritchard said, “No political action means ordinary people must act.”

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But the judge said each of the women had contempt for the trial and violated its ruling. “Each of you has been given the opportunity to apologize. None of you took advantage of this opportunity,” he said.

“My ruling was made because it had nothing to do with the cases the jury had to decide. The public has rights as well as protesters.”

Tom Wainwright, a solicitor for Garden Court Chambers, said the growing concern expressed over the removal of defenses for protesters indicated that the law may not have been in the right place.

“I think the concerns about people’s ability to explain their motivations and the consequences when they do that will cause people to look at it again,” Wainwright said.

He continued: “Many of the protest issues boil down to the big question of where the limit of free speech lies.

“It is not a trump card that replaces the rights of others. You have to find a balance, and I think that’s one of the things that the jury is ideally placed to consider.”

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