The Supreme Court has today ruled that four protesters did not act unlawfully when obstructing a road outside the controversial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Arms Fair.
The protest took place on 5 September 2017 outside London’s ExCeL exhibition centre, where the arms fair was being held. The protestors, Nora Ziegler, Chris Cole, Jo Frew, and Henrietta Cullinan, laid down in the middle of the road on one side of the carriageway, blocking the road carrying traffic towards the venue.
While the protestors were arrested a few minutes, locks attached to them took time to remove and they were not removed until 90 minutes later.
The protestors were charged with wilful obstruction of the Highway (contrary to Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980). In February 2018, they stood trial at Stratford Magistrates Court and found Not Guilty.
The District Judge found that the protestors were exercising their rights to free speech and assembly (under Article 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and so they had a “lawful excuse”.
However, the prosecution appealed on a point of law, and the acquittals were reversed by the High Court in January 2019.
Today, in a highly significant ruling, the Supreme Court has overturned the appeal – confirming that the Not Guilty verdicts found by the District Judge were correct. The Supreme Court found that protestors can still have a defence to a charge of wilful obstruction of the highway, even where there is a deliberate obstruction that has a real impact on other road users.
It was agreed that each case has to be judged on its own merits, and the state has to consider, under human rights legislation, whether the arrest, prosecution and conviction is a proportionate response to the defendants’ actions – which they agreed it was not.
Raj Chada, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, representing the protestors, said: “We are delighted that the Supreme Court has recognised that protests which are deliberately obstructive are still protected under Article 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Disruptive protests can and do change things. From anti-apartheid campaigners stopping sports events to civil rights protestors conducting sit ins, disruption as a form of free speech can be the spark for radical change.
“Whilst the Supreme Court has recognised the importance of free speech, the Government seeks to undermine it by their disgraceful Police and Crime Sentencing Bill. That legislation is an attack on our civil rights and democratic values”
Chris Cole, one of the Appellant said: “We are delighted that the right to protest, even if it causes disruption to public life, has been upheld by the Supreme Court. This timely judgement is particularly important in the context of attacks on the right to protest in the policing bill currently going through parliament.
“That our simple protest, which lasted only a few minutes, though possibly disruptive, led to four years of legal to-ing and fro-ing, illustrates very well the power of nonviolence. Our government, like many governments, sees any protest as a threat to its authority, as well it might. Selling arms is a rotten, dangerous business.
“Arms dealers from around the globe will once again descend on London this September to promote their lethal wares at the DSEI arms fair. In the light of today’s judgement, we urge as many people as possible to protest the arms fair and say as strongly as possible that profiting from war and armed violence is abhorrent and must end.”
The Appellants were represented in the Supreme Court by Henry Blaxland QC and Owen Greenhall of Garden Court Chambers and Blinne Ni Ghraliagh of Matrix Chambers.
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