March 14, 2014 by combehavendefenders
As people settled into their seats in the unfamiliar surroundings of Brighton Magistrates’ Court, those hoping they’d be out in time for morning coffee were quickly disabused of any such notion. Judge Crabtree warned us that whilst judgements in magistrates’ courts usually take between 45 minutes and two hours, this one was likely to take considerably longer.
He was right; his judgement took three and a half hours. But it was a judgement worth waiting for.
Shooting it all down
The first two hours or so were spent shooting down almost every argument advanced by the defendants as a defence to the charge of aggravated trespass. The fact that the warrant was undated was decreed to be ‘not fatal in any way’ to the prosecution’s case. All defendants were properly charged and the charges were properly reviewed. The police did not change their policy over the course of the evictions (despite evidence that people locked on at Three Oaks were not arrested, in contrast with those at Adam’s farm and Decoy camps). A conversation that one of the defendants claimed to have had with a police liaison officer (PLO) in which he was assured that as long as people in trees did not resist, they would not be arrested, did not happen (in his own evidence, the PLO in question had denied that this conversation had taken place – despite having had exactly the same conversation with somebody else). The prosecutions were not disproportionate. All the defendants were trespassing. One of the High Court Enforcement Officer who gave evidence against the defendants was ‘an entirely honest witness’.
By the time the judge had gone through all these points, and announced a five minute break, the feeling in the courtroom was one of defeat. We gathered in the corridor outside, gloomily picking apart the details. What could the result be other than conviction?
Obstructing work or raising awareness?
On our return, the judge started going through the case against each defendant individually. First up was Tom, who had claimed that his intention was not to obstruct work, but to raise awareness of the situation. His lawyer had produced tweets he had sent during his time in the treehouse as evidence that he was engaging with the media throughout. In addition, Tom said that because of the non-arrest of people locked on at Three Oaks, and the conversation he’d had with a PLO, it was his belief that he would not be arrested.
In order for the offence of aggravated trespass to be made out, the prosecution has to prove three elements. First, that the defendant was trespassing; second, that there was an intention to obstruct or disrupt lawful activity; and third, that there was an act distinct from the trespass (in other words, you have to be doing something beyond mere trespassing, which is in itself only a civil offence). Tom was trespassing, the judge said, but he also said that it was a ‘reasonable inference’ that his intention in occupying the tree was not to obstruct work, but to exercise his right to protest and raise awareness. Result: not guilty (you can see Tom’s blog about the trial here.)
There was a sharp intake of breath around the courtroom at this point. Even from behind, Tom looked stunned. But the judge ploughed on, quickly exonerating Alistair, Val and Kim on more or less the same grounds, accepting their arguments that whilst they did not engage directly with the media, they felt that by swelling the numbers, they were contributing to making the issue more interesting to the media. It looked as if we were on a roll.
Guilty of not being shy and retiring
However, when it came to Adrian, the judge rejected the argument that his intention was to raise awareness of the issue. Pointing to the media work Adrian had done before and after the eviction, the judge said that Adrian was a ‘key member’ of Combe Haven Defenders and was certainly not ‘shy and retiring’. As his tree was very close to the Heras fencing, and he had a mobile phone with him, he had every opportunity to contact the media whilst in the tree, but did not do so. In addition, the fact that scrub was cut down very close to Adrian’s tree while he was in it (in fact, he said he couldn’t climb down by himself as the lower branches of the tree itself had been cut) suggested that Adrian was, unlike the others, actually obstructing work.
Implied licencees save the day
This didn’t look good. It looked as if we were going to have a split verdict, which made no sense given that all six defendants had done more or less exactly the same thing, at the same time, in the same place. However, there was a small loophole to save Adrian, and the judge rapidly climbed through it.
He rejected the prosecution’s claim that merely being in the tree was a ‘distinct act’ as required by the law on aggravated trespass. At the time that Adrian climbed into the tree on January 16th – before ESCC came onto the land – he was an ‘implied licencee’ (that is, the people who owned the land at that point had not told him he could not be there). It was only when ESCC entered the land that he became a trespasser, but the charge (which merely said he’d been in a tree) did not point to any distinct act he’d committed. The judge said he could not be sure that remaining in a tree (as opposed to climbing into it after ESCC took possession of the land) amounted to a distinct and overt act. In that case, he had to acquit him.
Five down, one to go. At this point it was unthinkable that the last defendant, Maria, would be convicted, and she was indeed acquitted, on the same grounds as Adrian, despite the judge saying he was sure that her intentions included obstructing or disrupting work. But the fact that she’d climbed into her tree before ESCC took possession saved her as it had Adrian.
Bust cards: suggestion of guilt?
An interesting aside is that the judge made the case that the fact that Tom had a bustcard with him up the tree (as opposed to being given one by a legal observer on arrest), and in fact had the legal support number written on his arm, suggested guilt. In other words, he knew he was doing something wrong and anticipated being arrested for it. That Val and Kim did not have bust cards was taken as a suggestion of their innocence. Anyone who’s ever been arrested for doing, er, nothing, will know that having a bust card should not be taken as a sign of implied guilt!
Justice: but at what cost?
And that was that. Six defendants, six acquittals. All were awarded costs (which cover travel expenses but not loss of earnings for the 13 days that they had each spent in court), and they trooped outside for TV interviews.
So, justice was done – but at what cost? Six defendants, thirteen days in court, tens of thousands of pounds in prosecution costs, to say nothing of disrupted lives. Who ordered these prosecutions, and for whose benefit?
The final act in this saga takes place on Tuesday 18 March, 10am, Brighton Magistrates’ Court, where the verdict will be given for the five people in trial 5.