UK climate activists convicted in first trial of new anti-protest laws

<span>Phoebe Plummer (left) and Chiara Sarti outside Southwark crown court in London.</span><span>Photograph: Hesther Ng/Story Picture Agency</span>
Phoebe Plummer (left) and Chiara Sarti outside Southwark crown court in London.Photograph: Hesther Ng/Story Picture Agency

Three climate activists have been convicted of “interference with key national infrastructure” by marching in the road in west London for 20 minutes, in the new offence’s first test at trial.

Phoebe Plummer, Chiara Sarti and Daniel Hall were the first defendants to face a jury trial on the new section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023, which bans any act preventing harbours, airports, railways or roads “from being used or operated to any extent”.

Critics have called the law repressive, and claimed that it gives authorities a licence to crack down on virtually any protest at their discretion.

The defendants had sought to persuade the jury that convicting them under the new law could criminalise a swathe of legitimate protest. But after jurors were directed to only take into account whether or not the protest had caused “significant” disruption to the roads, they found the defendants guilty in an 11-1 majority verdict.

Over a five-day trial, Southwark crown court heard that on 15 November last year that Plummer, Sarti and Hall took part in a slow march protest along Earls Court Road as part of the Just Stop Oil campaign, which calls on the government to ban new licences for oil and gas exploitation in the UK.

The court heard the protest had caused long tailbacks, including on the Cromwell Road, part of the A4, and reaching as far away as the Hammersmith flyover, with traffic held up for several hours.

“This is key national infrastructure – A-roads,” the prosecution argued. “They intended to cause a delay. The protest interfered with the use of these roads in that the use of these roads was severely delayed.”

In their defence, Plummer, Sarti and Hall said their protest was designed to minimise the amount of disruption caused to drivers, while still causing enough to gain media coverage of their demand that the government introduce a ban on new licences for oil and gas exploitation.

But on the instructions of Judge Chris Hehir they were restricted in the evidence they could bring regarding their motivation for taking part in the protest and mentions of the climate crisis, and told they could not mount a defence of justification.

Nonetheless, in closing speeches to the jury, both Plummer, who represented herself, and Raj Chada, who represented Sarti, made reference to the unusual heat in the court, which had led Hehir to finish early on several days of the trial.

“The irony of that, courtrooms being so hot in May that the trial day ends early, is not lost on me,” Plummer told the jury. She went on: “It was not my intention to delay anyone. I don’t want to cause delay or disruption to anyone.

“I want to prevent the massive disruption to all of us, from flooded roads, homes, and fields, from heat that melts roads and runways and is already killing and displacing millions around the world. That was my intention.”

Hehir repeatedly interrupted Plummer’s closing speech, reminding her of his instructions, before finally ordering the jury to leave after she invited them to join her in a minute’s silence for the victims of climate breakdown.

In his final address to jurors, Hall also made reference to the climate crisis, saying: “Isn’t it more reckless to spend the final two to three years we have [left] to avoid climate breakdown signing petitions and politely protesting by the side of the road, because it’s preferable to our lawbreaking government?”

At that point he too was silenced by Hehir. The trio will be sentenced on 3 July. The maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.