More than 1,000 people who took part in environmental direct action organised by Extinction Rebellion have been taken to court in what experts say is one of the biggest crackdowns on protest in British legal history.
Hundreds of cases are ongoing and lawyers say that despite the pandemic, some defendants may still be asked to travel to court in London from across the UK to appear in person.
Lawyers for the defendants say the scale of the prosecutions and the decision to press ahead with trials during the pandemic is unprecedented, and putting people’s health at risk.
Raj Chada, a solicitor from Hodge Jones and Allen, which is representing many of the defendants, said: “These clients come from across the country, and the court system is just getting to grips with remote attendances. The Covid crisis is at its height, yet the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] are continuing these cases at great financial cost.”
XR have staged three major “rebellions” over the past two years to highlight the escalating climate and ecological emergency and demand urgent action from the government. The peaceful protests brought large parts of London to a standstill for days, with printing presses of rightwing newspapers blockaded and fossil fuel companies targeted.
XR says more than 3,400 people have been arrested, with about 1,700 charged, almost all for minor public order offences such as obstructing the highway. About 900 people have pleaded guilty and another 800 have either been tried or are awaiting their day in court.
Zoë Blackler, who has overseen the courts process for XR, said it had highlighted the range of people who were prepared to take a stand to force urgent action on the climate emergency. “They come from all across the country and from every age range – there are as many people over 65 as in their 20s. I’ve met doctors and delivery drivers, teachers and builders, even a retired merchant mariner in his 80s.”
She said some people had been campaigning on the environment for years, but for most it was the first time they had taken part in activism “and certainly their first encounter with the criminal justice system”.
Chada said the decision to press ahead with the prosecutions was not in the public interest. “One wonders who is making these decisions and what pressure they are under,” he said.
Graeme Hayes, a sociologist from Aston University, who is part of a team of researchers following the XR court cases, agreed the decision to prosecute so many people for minor offences was highly unusual. “What we are seeing looks very much like political decisions to charge people and to take them to court for very minor offences, and that is extraordinary. I can not think of a precedent [in the UK] where that has happened before on anything like this scale.”
Hayes said it appeared to be the result of political pressure, possibly from the home secretary, Priti Patel, who labelled XR as criminals who threatened the “UK way of life”, and from the police, who were criticised after the April 2019 protests.
The Crown Prosecution Service said it was an independent, “demand-led organisation” with a duty to consider all cases referred by police. “Every case is assessed solely on its individual merits, and prosecutions will only follow if our legal tests are met,” it said.
In November, XR announced it was planning a money rebellion – a campaign of financial civil disobedience to expose the “political economy’s complicity” in the ecological crisis. It said this would be a sustained campaign of debt and tax strikes, with people “redirecting” loans from banks that finance fossil fuel projects to frontline organisations fighting for climate justice.