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Extinction Rebellion Protestor Cases

Jurisdiction: Various


Side A: The Crown (Government)


Side B: Extinction Rebellion protestors (Individual)


Core objectives: Whether climate protesters could assert necessity defense to escape liability for offences including trespass and criminal damage


Summary
Between 2018 and 2022 there have been numerous separate trials of protestors associated with the protest group "Extinction Rebellion" before English courts, including both crown courts and magistrates courts. Protestors were charged with a number of offences arising from their participation in a series of protests organised by Extinction Rebellion, the first of which took place in October 2018. The protestors were charged with offences ranging from public order offences, such as violations of a blanket ban on protest activities put in place by the Metropolitan police under Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act to criminal damage.

In November 2019 the High Court ruled in R (Jones) v Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police [2019] EWHC 2957 (Admin) that the Section 14 ban put in place to restrict protests in October 2019 was unlawful on the basis that the protests then taking place did not constitute a "public assembly" for the purposes of the legislation. Nevertheless, cases related to other protests and where protestors actions were alleged to have constituted other forms of criminal offences were still able to proceed.

In several of these trials, protestors have sought to raise the defence of "necessity", arguing that they had a legal excuse for the acts constituting the offence of which they were accused. Under the law of England and Wales, the defence of "necessity" or "duress of "circumstances". Protestors argue that climate change poses an imminent and inevitable threat to life and property, and that their acts of protest were a proportionate response. In several cases they have sought to rely on evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in support of this position.

The outcomes of these cases have varied, with several protestors receiving convictions and sentences ranging from fines and conditional discharges to imprisonment while others have been acquitted. Noteworthy trials include:

R v Ditchfield
An Extinction Rebellion protester was cleared of criminal liability for defacing a council building after successfully arguing that she was acting to defend her property. Angela Ditchfield was arrested after spray-painting two "XR" symbols onto the headquarters of the Cambridgeshire County Council during a protest in December 2018. She argued that she had a legal excuse under Section 5 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which provides an excuse for criminal damage when it is committed to protect the property of another, because she believed climate disaster posed an imminent threat to her property. According to news reports, on November 1, 2019 she was found not guilty at Cambridge Magistrates' Court, which found that she was acting to protect land and homes. The Director of Public Prosecutions subsequently appealed the sentence to the High Court where on 12 January 2021 the appeal was allowed.  The Court held that as an act intended to convince a government authority to take action on an issue was incapable of providing immediate protection to property, it did not fall within the ambit of the statute.

R v Bramwell ("The Shell Six Case")
On April 23, 2021, a jury at Southwark Crown Court acquitted six protestors who were charged with criminal damage caused to Shell's headquarters after spray painting slogans and breaking windows during the course of Extinction Rebellion protests in April 2019. According to an Extinction Rebellion press release, a seventh protestor who had pleaded guilty due to child care arrangements was subsequently given a conditional discharge.

According to media reports, the judge allowed defendants to provide evidence of their motivations but informed the jury that even if they were "morally justified" they had no defence at law. The jury nonetheless decided to acquit the activists after reportedly asking to see a copy of their oath.

R v Eastburn ("The DLR Three Case")
According to media reports and information from Extinction Rebellion, on December 19, 2021 three protestors were convicted of obstructing an engine or carriage by an unlawful act, contrary to Section 36 of the Malicious Damage Act 1861 by a jury at Inner London Crown Court . The three protestors had climbed onto a Docklands Light Railway train during rush hour on April 17 2019. The judge ruled that the "necessity defence" could not be presented to the jury, who noted that the conviction was entered "with regret". The protestors were given conditional discharge and required to pay a contribution to court costs.

R v Edwards
On November 18 2019 protestor Melanie Edwards was sentenced to seven days imprisonment for contempt of court after gluing herself to the dock during an initial trial for breach of a Section 14 notice.

R v Blackmore
On 30 June 2021 a judge at Southwark Crown Court dismissed a case against a group of protesters whose actions were said to have caused criminal damage at Shell's Headquarters. The judge found that as the damage was worth only £163 it failed to meet the threshold for a trial in a Crown Court.

These cases are also related to the case of R v Brown, which concerned a different legal question regarding the proportionality of the charges brought in response to acts of protest.
Case documents

from the Grantham Research Institute
from the Grantham Research Institute
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