On 9 January, a three-day trial in Brighton resulted in acquittals for 10 people arrested for blockading the drilling site near Balcombe on 26 July. This was the first of over 20 trials arising out of protests against energy giant Cuadrilla’s attempts to drill for oil and gas near the West Sussex village.
All 10 were acquitted of ‘obstruction of the highway’. Defence lawyers argued that as the B2036 London Road at Balcombe was closed to traffic by the police during the blockade, the highway could not have been obstructed by the activists.
The judge found that the protesters had obstructed the movement of vehicles into the drilling site, but ruled that their actions had been ‘dignified’ and ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances.
Defendant Michael Atkins was also cleared of assault – he had been charged after a police constable suffered some tea spilling on her.
Paul Deacon, another defendant, told the West Sussex County Times: ‘I hope people realise from our case that it’s perfectly legal to protest, and protest in a defiant manner as we did, and people should not be frightened from expressing their opinion.’
Nearly half of those arrested at the Balcombe protests between 25 July and 30 September last year have not been prosecuted, a Freedom of Information Act request by InvestigatingBalcombe-AndCuadrilla.com has revealed. Of the 126 people arrested, 57 people, or 45%, were either cautioned, not charged, or had their cases discontinued by the crown prosecution service (CPS) after they were charged.
Ruth Hayhurst, the freelance environmental journalist operating the investigative website, comments that ‘of the 90 people charged, 22 (just under a quarter) had their cases discontinued following a review by the CPS or after their first hearing at court.’
A second three-day Balcombe trial finished on 24 January, resulting in one campaigner, Zachary Hewitt, being acquitted, and two others, Timothy Harris and Kaity Squires, being found guilty of assaulting police officers during an altercation that started with a police officer repeatedly pushing a placard being carried by Zachary Hewitt. The two were both conditionally discharged for 12 months and each ordered to pay £300 costs.