Monday, 18 January 2016

A morning in court with the Heathrow defenders

I just spent the morning at Willesden Magistrates Court for the first day of the #Heathrow13 #planestupid trial. Here are some initial thoughts on how the first couple of hours went:

-    There was a lively, noisy crowd of supporters outside the court at 9am, and many stayed to watch the trial itself. The public gallery has 26 seats, but by 11am it was crammed with around 40 people.

-    The defendants are facing two separate charges for their protest on the Heathrow runway in July: trespass in a restricted zone and aggravated trespass.

-    Their defence against both charges relies on the idea of necessity – they are arguing that their actions were justified because by blocking the runway they were preventing a greater crime, in the form of climate change and local air pollution from Heathrow.

-    There is no automatic right to run a justification defence for these particular offences, it is up to the judge to decide whether it is appropriate. So one of the first concerns for the defendants was whether the judge would even allow them to run their chosen defence, or throw it out at the start.

-    Fortunately, the judge has not (yet) thrown out their defence. In fact, she started the trial by clarifying an important fact relating to this defence: to be found not guilty, the defendants would not have to prove that aviation emissions cause climate change – they would need to prove that *they believed* that the impact of Heathrow’s emissions was so large that they were compelled to take action to stop them.

-    The judge used this point to argue that she may not need to hear live evidence from the defence’s climate sciece expert – instead, she wondered, could the prosecution and defence not simply come to an agreement that aviation makes a significant contribution to climate change?

-    As a supporter of the defendants, I have mixed feelings about this. While it’s helpful that the judge recognises that climate change is real and serious, it is much more powerful to have a live witness on the stand giving expert testimony. I hope the judge changes her mind about this.

Two of the defendants on the runway, July 2015
-    The judge also mentioned the local residents who are due to give defence evidence about the health impact of Heathrow’s pollution. She stated that she did not consider that their statements counted as “expert” testimony because they did not themselves have professional medical training. I’m not sure if that has any legal significance or was just a semantic point, I guess we’ll hear more about it if/when those witnesses give evidence.

I left at 11.30am, by which time the prosecution had begun to make their case. They’re expecting to complete their side of the case in the first day or two, because no-one is disputing the basic facts of the case – that the thirteen defendants went onto the runway and disrupted airport operations for six hours. Everything hinges on whether the judge can be convinced that the defendants’ actions were necessary and proportionate to the threat the airport poses to people’s health, lives and property around the world. It’s very hard to tell her position at this stage, but at least she seems willing to acknowledge the possibility of a defence along these lines. Which is a good first step.

I won’t be back in court again so keep an eye on the following places for updates:

@planestupid and @reclaimthepower on Twitter
Plane Stupid and Reclaim the Power on Facebook

Much love and solidarity to all the defendants. Airport expansion is simply not compatible with a liveable climate, and whatever the outcome of this trial the #Heathrow13 have already done us all a huge service by stopping a swathe of aviation emissions and throwing a spotlight on this urgent issue.

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