Disruption can be lawful: supreme court overturns DSEI convictions

IssueAugust - September 2021
News by Milan Rai

On 25 June, Britain’s supreme court set an important legal precedent when it ruled that protesting can be a ‘lawful excuse’ for deliberately disruptive action that obstructs the highway. It made this ruling as it confirmed the acquittal of four Christian anti-arms trade campaigners.

The case dates back to the 2017 DSEI arms fair in East London, when Chris Cole, Henrietta Cullinan, Joanna Frew and Nora Ziegler were arrested (while locked-on to each other in pairs) on the ‘No Faith in War’ day of action during the run-up to DSEI.

The four peace activists were charged with highway obstruction for blockading an approach road to the ExCeL Centre where DSEI is held.

They argued in court that it was a reasonable use of the highway to block a road being used by vehicles carrying weapons of destruction into the arms fair, to bring attention to the evils of the arms trade.

In other words, the police had interfered in a disproportionate way with their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

District judge Angus Hamilton acquitted the four in February 2018 on the basis that the right to demonstrate includes the right to cause a reasonable amount of disruption in order to draw attention to one’s cause. He invited higher courts to clarify the question. (PN 2614 – 2615)

Eight other DSEI 2017 defendants were acquitted – and over a dozen had their cases dropped after the No Faith in War Four ruling. (PN 2616 – 2617)

After DSEI 2015, eight activists were acquitted, also by district judge Hamilton. He said he had been presented with ‘clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence’ that criminal wrongdoing had occurred at past DSEI arms fairs, that it was likely to take place again, and that no real action was being taken against such criminal behaviour. (PN 2594 – 2595)

The appeals

Getting back to the No Faith in War DSEI 2017 case, the prosecution appealed and the high court overturned the acquittals in January 2019. (PN 2626 – 2627)

The supreme court has now overturned the overturning, and reinstated the acquittals of the No Faith in War Four.

The court said: ‘Intentional action by protestors to disrupt by obstructing others enjoys the guarantees of articles 10 and 11 [of the ECHR]… there must be an assessment of the facts in each individual case to determine whether the interference with articles 10 and 11 rights was “necessary in a democratic society”.’

The court ruled that the nature of the protest was important, including whether the issues were ‘very important’ and of ‘considerable breadth, depth and relevance’. The sincerity of the protesters’ beliefs and their peaceful intentions were also relevant.

The importance of the location to the protesters, whether it had a ‘symbolic force’ and the need to have ‘sight and sound’ of the object of the protest were also relevant.

The court also said that a failure to notify the police in advance of the protest did not, in itself, disqualify campaigners from being able to call on a ‘lawful excuse’ defence.

The four were represented by Blinne Ní Ghralaigh of Matrix Chambers and Henry Blaxland QC and Owen Greenhall of Garden Court Chambers, instructed by Raj Chada at Hodge Jones and Allen.