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Spirits high as defendants in the fifth trial in Hastings await their fate (photo: CHD).

Verdicts awaited in final road protest trials

The trials – six in all – arising from protest actions against the controversial Bexhill-Hastings Link Road have now come to an end, though verdicts are still outstanding in a couple. Nick Terdre reports.

The last day of hearings in Hastings Law Courts, where five of the trials were held, took place on Friday 7 February. Having got off to a late start, however, there was no time for the judge to read out his verdict in the fifth trial, so this has been postponed to 18 March at Brighton Magistrates Court. The verdict for trial 4 will also be given in Brighton, in this case on 12 March.

The six trials involved 19 protesters most of whom were charged with obstructing preparatory work on the road. According to the anti-link road group Combe Haven Defenders, the defendants faced a total of 39 charges, 21 of which were either dropped or resulted in acquittals. Of the three trials in Hastings for which the results are known, there were two acquittals and four guilty verdicts. All those found guilty were given conditional discharges, and two were ordered to pay costs.

Emily Johns (photo: Milan Ray).

The remaining trial took place in London. This arose from Operation Disclosure, an action aimed at making public the Department for Transport’s recommendations concerning the link road. One of the disclosure team, Emily Johns, was charged with aggravated trespass and failing to obey a police order to leave the DfT premises.

The charge of aggravated trespass had to be abandoned as it only applies when the offending person obstructs, disrupts or intimidates others. In fact, Emily told HOT, relations with the DfT personnel were cordial. “This wasn’t an action against the DfT – we were supporting the DfT workers who wrote the document,” she said. Two witnesses, a police officer and a security guard, testified to the non aggravating nature of the action.

However, Emily was found guilty on the second charge. This was brought under Section 69 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which gives police the power to order a person to leave the area if they believe them to be committing aggravated trespass – but since aggravated trespass had not been committed, the police officer was acting on a mistaken understanding of the law. Even so, the judge allowed the charge to stand.

Moral victory

The sentence, which at worst might have been a £2,500 fine and three months’ imprisonment, was a comparatively light 18-month conditional discharge. In the view of CHD, the outcome was a moral victory. The judge also turned down a request from the prosecutor to require Emily to pay costs of £400, instead ordering the Crown Prosecution Service to pay her travel costs for a previous wasted trip to the capital when the prosecutor failed to show.

The case helped bring into the open the lack of transparency in government, Emily told HOT, a point she was also able to make when the judge asked her if she had anything to say before being sentenced. It showed moreover that making use of the law of aggravated trespass as a means of policing peaceful actions of this kind is inappropriate, she said.

Ironically enough, just days after Emily’s arrest, the government bowed to pressure and made public the recommendations of the DfT report. Among other conclusions, this stated that the road was of “low or medium value for money,” that other options had not been fully worked through when central government funding for the project was approved, and that East Sussex County Council had significantly overstated the benefits of the scheme.

 

See also What’s happening at Combe Haven?

 

Posted 18:23 Thursday, Feb 13, 2014 In: Campaigns

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