Climate protesters can’t rely on beliefs in criminal damage cases, UK court rules

By Thomson Reuters Mar 18, 2024 | 11:00 AM

By Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) -Environmental activists accused of criminal damage cannot rely on their political or philosophical beliefs as a defence, London’s Court of Appeal ruled on Monday, raising the prospect of more protesters being convicted for direct action.

Various groups have targeted companies and political parties in Britain, causing damage to property in order to raise awareness of climate-change issues.

The rise in the use of direct action has prompted a wider crackdown on protest movements in Britain and across Europe, particularly in relation to environmental groups.

Monday’s ruling effectively prevents environmental protesters from relying on their beliefs about the dangers of climate change as a defence to criminal damage.

Attorney General Victoria Prentis, who asked the Court of Appeal to clarify the law after the acquittal of environmental activists last year, welcomed the decision.

“Climate change is an important issue and while the right to protest must be protected it does not give a right to cause serious criminal damage no matter how strongly held a belief is,” she said in a statement.

The decision drew criticism from campaign groups including Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Just Stop Oil, whose activists have been charged with criminal damage.

XR co-founder Clare Farrell, one of nine people acquitted in November of breaking windows at bank HSBC’s London headquarters, said the ruling would “criminalise” non-violent protesters.

In English law, a defendant has a defence to a charge of criminal damage if the property owner would have consented had they been aware of the circumstances behind causing the damage.

Defendants have been cleared by juries after admitting causing damage to property owned by companies having argued that those companies would have consented if they had known about the extent and importance of climate change.

The Court of Appeal ruled on Monday, however, that the circumstances in which damage is caused “would not include the political or philosophical beliefs of the person causing the damage”.

Sue Carr, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said that evidence about a defendant’s views on climate change will usually be inadmissible and cannot be put before the jury.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin, editing by Ed Osmond)