In March, two climate change protestors, Giovanna Lewis and Amy Pritchard, were imprisoned. Not because they had protested, although causing a public nuisance was the offence with which they were tried. On that offence the jury could not reach a verdict.
They were imprisoned because they disobeyed a direction from the judge – that they should not tell the jury why they had protested. In telling the jury why, the judge said, they were in contempt of court. And he sentenced them to seven weeks in prison.
Several weeks later, Trudi Warner, a retired 68 year old social worker, was ordered to appear at the Old Bailey for contempt. Her alleged crime? Standing outside court she had held up a sign that said “Jurors: you have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience.”
Yet juries do have that right – indeed it may be their most important function.
The mightiest power the State wields is to imprison its citizens.
The fossil fuel industry has known for decades what its activities mean. They mean the loss of human life, which the civil law should prevent but does not. The scientific evidence is that global heating, the natural and inevitable consequence of its actions, will cause the deaths of huge numbers of people. The criminal law should punish this but it does not. Nor does the law recognise a crime of ecocide to deter the destruction of the planet.
The law does not imprison those who destroy the planet – but it does imprison those who protest the destruction.
This may or may not seem wrong to you. But hitherto our criminal justice system has agreed that it is important how it feels to a jury.
There is no single rationale for juries. But we have them to ask, is this thing the State is doing fair? Is this particular exercise of its mighty power to deny liberty to its people right? Does it feel, to twelve people good and true, like justice? Juries are how we temper the tendency of the State to totalitarianism.
If the law diverges too far from justice it is a jury’s function to say ‘justice must prevail’.
But to perform this function they must hear the evidence. Or we risk silencing not just protestors against the destruction of the planet. We will gag juries too.
Today our friends at Insulate Britain protested against the gagging of juries. You can contribute to our fund to defend protestors here.
We’re supporting action to defend the rights of protesters and the essential freedoms that hold up our fragile democracy.
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