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Successful Appeal Against Conviction For Extinction Rebellion’s Reverend Sue Parfitt

Relying on her rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Hodge Jones & Allen client, 80 year old Reverend Sue Parfitt yesterday successfully appealed to Bristol Crown Court against her against conviction for obstruction of the highway by Bristol Magistrates in June last year.

A member of Christian Climate Action, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, Rev Parfitt has been sincerely committed to environmental activism since the 1960s.

On 11 December 2020, on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, Rev Parfitt together with a handful of others, blocked an access road to the Ministry of Defence site at Abbey Wood in Bristol. The purpose of the demonstration was to draw attention to the fact that the UK Government was not meeting its Paris commitments to limit carbon emissions because it had doubled defence spending and excluded military emissions from the UK carbon budget.

Rev Parfitt sat on a chair in the access road for 4 hours blocking vehicle access. Pedestrians and cyclists had unfettered access. The general public highway was unaffected. The only disruption the Prosecution could prove had occurred was that a total of 7 vans bringing either food or maintenance workers were unable to gain access until the road was reopened at 11am when the police brought the protest to an end by arresting and detaining Rev Parfitt. The protesters had made arrangements to facilitate access by disabled badge holders and emergency access, should the need arise, and undertaken a Covid risk assessment.

In a wide ranging legal argument considering both common law and ECtHR jurisprudence on the right to protest on the public highway, her lawyers argued:

  1. The Rev Parfitt had a lawful excuse, in that her use of the highway to exercise her freedom of expression was a reasonable use of the highway, and;
  2. That in any event, where her fundamental rights were engaged, the state’s restrictions of those rights by limiting the protest, arresting, detaining and prosecuting her was not necessary and proportionate in a democratic society in pursuit of a legitimate aim: Ziegler [2021] UKSC 23.

In Ziegler the Supreme Court held that “there must a certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life, including disruption to traffic, caused by the exercise of the freedoms of expression and assembly.”

The Crown Court having reviewed the particular facts of this case, and considering reasonableness and proportionality, held that the Prosecution had not proved that Rev Parfitt’s use of the highway to exercise her freedom of expression about a very important matter of public concern (namely climate change) was an unreasonable use of the highway.

Mike Schwarz, Partner in the Hodge Jones & Allen Protest Law team instructed David Rhodes from Doughty Street Chambers.