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Court of Appeal Quashes Terror Charges of Stansted 15

The Lord Chief Justice finds the group should never have been prosecuted for the offence “There was…. in truth, no case to answer

In one of the most political trials of recent times, members of the group known as the Stansted 15 have had their conviction of “endangering safety at a public airport”, a terror related offence, quashed by the Court of Appeal.

On 28 March 2017, the group surrounded a plane chartered by the Home Office in a remote part of Stansted airport, ‘locking on’ to each other using lock-ons and tripods to prevent the use of a plane in the deportation of 60 individuals to Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The group received an initial charge of “aggravated trespass”; a minor pubic order offence, normally resulting in non-custodial sentence, and a common charge in this type of case.

In July 2017, three months after the initial charge, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) changed the conviction to a new offence, after consent was granted from the Attorney General. The group were charged with “endangering safety at a public airport”, a far more serious, terror related offence, deriving from the Montreal Protocol, an international convention for combating terrorism from the 1990s. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment. As a “Convention Offence” under the Terrorism Act 2006, even encouraging the actions of the Stansted 15 would constitute a criminal offence. This legislation has previously never been used for protestors and is unprecedented.

Head of Criminal Defence at leading social-justice law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, Raj Chada, and renowned protest lawyer, Mike Schwarz, also a Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, represented all 15 members of the group in the Appeal. The legal team had appealed on five grounds:

i) The meaning of the offence (endangering safety in a public airport) was wrongly interpreted by the court
ii) The Attorney General had wrongly given consent for this conviction
iii) There was “necessity” in the group’s actions; they were entitled to do what they did as there was a risk of serious harm or death to the deportees
iv) The judge’s summing up was wrong
v) There was an error about a particular legal direction.

The Appeal was won on the first grounds, with the court finding that the defendants should not have been “prosecuted for this offence as their conduct did not satisfy the various elements of this offence. There was…. in truth, no case to answer”.

UN human rights experts had previously expressed their concern about this case and urged the UK not to use security and terrorism-related legislation to prosecute peaceful protesters. Since the events of March 2017, 11 of the 60 passengers remain in the UK. Amongst the passengers that have now been allowed to stay in the UK was a victim of human trafficking.

May MacKeith, a member of the Stansted 15, responding on behalf of the group to the Court of Appeal’s ruling, said:

“It is painful for it to be finally acknowledged that the past four years’ of prosecution should never have happened. But for many people caught up in the UK immigration system the ordeal lasts much, much longer. In the middle of a global pandemic the government is still locking people in detention centres and brutally forcing people onto secret night flights, often to places they don’t know.

The nightmare of this bogus charge, a ten week trial and the threat of prison has dominated our lives for four years. Despite the draconian response we know our actions were justified. 11 people, including survivors of trafficking, who would have been deported that night are still in the UK. Mothers, fathers, colleagues, friends and family members are rebuilding lives the government attempted to destroy.

To help us move closer to something that truly represents justice we need to challenge the cruel and racist logic that builds prisons and borders. That means stopping all deportation charter flights, closing all detention centres and ending automatic deportation of people who have been convicted of a crime. It means migrants should have the right to welfare support and not to be forced to live in appalling conditions or forced into unnecessary and dangerous reporting. It means dismantling the Home Office and enabling free movement for all.”

Head of Criminal Defence at Hodge Jones & Allen, Raj Chada said:

“It should be a matter of great shame to the CPS and the Attorney General, that terror related legislation was used against peaceful protestors. Both have questions to answer as to why they authorised such an unprecedented charge. The plain fact is that the British Cabinet Minster consented to this prosecution with wholly inappropriate terror related charges against those who oppose their Government’s flawed and unlawful immigration policies. Amnesty International adopted the 15 as human rights defenders, Liberty intervened in the case and even the UN, through their Special Rapporteurs, expressed concern, yet the case went forward. Even now, the State does not draw a line and concede that they will not take this matter further and they will drop any remaining charges. These defendants have been through enough. We should focus on the inhuman migrant policies that this Government continues to pursue, rather the continued criminalisation of protest.”

Mike Schwarz, a Partner in the Criminal Defence team at Hodge Jones & Allen and leading protest lawyer, also said:

“What is of particular concern in this case is that the 15 had credible evidence that there were individuals on that flight, whose testimony the defendants had received, who were at risk of death and serious injury if returned to West Africa. One deportee, a lesbian woman, feared that she would be killed immediately upon her return. The flawed charter flight system for forcible removals, exacerbated by a broken and chaotic immigration process, systematically and unlawfully deports people from the UK. On top of all this, we now see the Government pursuing and prosecuting its own citizens when they seek, as a last resort, to prevent such horrendous acts.”

Timeline of the case

  • 28 March 2017 The Stansted 15, acting to prevent the deportation, by way of charter flight, of individuals believed by the group to be at risk of violence, serious harm or death, cut through the airport perimeter fence with bolt croppers, ‘lock-on’ to each other around the chartered plane in a remote part of Stansted Airport (away from the main terminal and runways) using lock-ons and tripods. Their action caused the deportation flight to be cancelled.
  • July 2017 The CPS changes the charges to endangering safety at an aerodrome, with Attorney General Consent
  • March 2018 First trial aborted by HHJ Morgan
  • December 2018 Defendants convicted at Chelmsford Crown Court
  • 6 February 2019 Three members of the group receive sentences of 9 months’ imprisonment, suspended for 18 months; the remaining 12 were sentenced to community orders.
  • 24 November 2020 HJA Solicitors represent the 15 before the before Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal
  • 29 January 2021 The Court of Appeal quashes the group’s conviction of “endangering safety at Stansted Airport”, finding the defendants should not have been “prosecuted for this offence as their conduct did not satisfy the various elements of this offence. There was…. in truth, no case to answer”.

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