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Demonstrators outside Sheffield Crown Court protest against moves to undermine jury system

Several juries have acquitted climate activists based on a longstanding but little-known legal principle – but justice campaigners have warned that it could be under threat.

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Twelve people took part in the action outside Sheffield Crown Court today.

Now Then.

Around a dozen people protested outside Sheffield Crown Court earlier today against attacks by some judges and Conservative politicians on the rights of juries within the criminal justice system.

The protest forms part of the national Defend Our Juries campaign. According to organisers, more than 50 similar demonstrations took place outside courtrooms across the UK at the same time.

The demonstrators held up identical signs on West Bar for about an hour from 9am, as dozens of people filed into the court for the day’s proceedings.

The Defend Our Juries campaign say they want to protect the centuries-old principle of 'jury equity', which allows juries in UK courts to acquit defendants according to conscience, irrespective of the directions of the judge.

This principle has seen a number of climate activists acquitted of charges stemming from direct action protests, like those carried out by groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.

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The demonstrators say they want to protect the right of juries to acquit based on conscience.

Now Then.

Many activists have been acquitted by juries on the basis that they committed minor breaches of the law to draw attention to political inaction on climate breakdown, which is driving us towards the complete collapse of earth systems and possible extinction as a species.

Speaking ahead of the demonstration outside the Crown Court, Sheffield resident Heather Worden, a retired speech and language therapist, said she was protesting primarily due to her "extreme concern" about climate breakdown.

"All societies need to urgently prioritise world-friendly decisions and actions as the world climate is currently changing too fast for life everywhere, including people and societies, to adapt," she said.

"I think jurors need to hear the whole truth, including background and motivations, from those people who have been brave enough to risk arrest and trial in service to our world."

The principle has been used by juries for centuries. In 1984 a senior civil servant was acquitted by a jury against the advice of a judge for leaking information showing that the government had misled the public over the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War.

But campaigners say the principle is being steadily undermined by a series of attacks from both within the judiciary itself and from ministers in the current government, who are unhappy with some high-profile acquittals.

In a case that caused widespread outrage, climate activists with the group Insulate Britain who had taken direct action were barred by Judge Silas Reid from explaining the motivation behind their actions to the jury. When the defendants refused to comply with this order in court, and exercised their right to put their own defence to the jury, Reid sentenced them to seven weeks in jail.

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All of the demonstrators held up identical signs stating the principle of jury equity.

Now Then.

The Sheffield protestors say that by merely holding up signs outside the Crown Court which cite the principle of jury equity they ran the risk of being arrested, although Monday morning’s demonstration passed without incidents

All twelve demonstrators remained silent and looked at the floor during the protest, so that they couldn’t be accused of trying to personally influence any jurors entering the court.

Three activists with the Defend Our Juries campaign have been arrested by the Metropolitan Police so far for holding similar placards outside London courtrooms, on the basis that they were "perverting the course of justice".

One person, 68-year retired social worker Trudi Warner, was even prosecuted for holding up a sign outside Judge Reid's courtroom that reminded jurors they had the right to acquit defendants on the basis of conscience.

The three arrests may have had unintended consequences for Judge Reid and the government. Shortly after the decision to prosecute Warner, Defend Our Juries say 252 people held up similar signs outside 25 crown courts in England and Wales. None have been arrested.

In January 2022 the 'Colston Four', who were charged with criminal damage after helping to push a statue of the slave trader into Bristol harbour, were acquitted by a jury using the principle of jury equity (the defendants did not deny that they had breached the law).

Following this, then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman took the case to the Court of Appeal and convinced them to change the rules for future trials, opening her to accusations of politically-motivated meddling in the justice system.

Legal scholars have raised concerns that such moves represent an attack on a legal principle that has "played a crucial role in the creation of many of the fundamental rights that we enjoy today".

University of Sussex professor Richard Vogler wrote in the Guardian that acquittals based on conscience "have always served as a safety valve against unpopular legislation, or where an otherwise sensible rule leads to an obvious injustice in a particular case."

"This is surely a vital safeguard in a democracy."

Others have pointed to the seemingly bizarre situation where protestors can be prosecuted for holding up signs that simply state principles of justice, and have wondered whether signs that express support for the presumption of innocence or the right to a fair trial would also lead to an arrest.

Cath Parker, a retired teacher and counsellor, said she was taking part in the protest outside the Sheffield Crown Court to defend "the right of jurors to make their own decisions and to vote according to their conscience."

"I am doing this because it is important the legal system allows people to tell the whole truth behind their actions in court, and not be silenced. This right is enshrined in the law of our land and should not be abandoned."

"Let our juries hear the whole truth and let them reach a fair verdict without judicial interference."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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