Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law

A jury in the UK decided that campaigners were justified in breaking the law because global warming is such a big threat. I can see the lawyers and the police rolling their eyes with such a precedent setting decision.

The Independent reports:

The defence of “lawful excuse” under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 allows damage to be caused to property to prevent even greater damage – such as breaking down the door of a burning house to tackle a fire.

The not-guilty verdict, delivered after two days and greeted with cheers in the courtroom, raises the stakes for the most pressing issue on Britain’s green agenda and could encourage further direct action.

Kingsnorth was the centre for mass protests by climate camp activists last month. Last year, three protesters managed to paint Gordon Brown’s name on the plant’s chimney. Their handi-work cost £35,000 to remove.

I wonder if the Ploughshares folk who knocked out the Waihopai dome will try the same tactic in court. It seems there may be a legal precedent…

The campaigners had a prominent ally who turned up to testify on their behalf:

During the eight-day trial, the world’s leading climate scientist, Professor James Hansen of Nasa, who had flown from American to give evidence, appealed to the Prime Minister personally to “take a leadership role” in cancelling the plan and scrapping the idea of a coal-fired future for Britain.

Professor Hansen, who first alerted the world to the global warming threat in June 1988 with testimony to a US senate committee in Washington, and who last year said the earth was in “imminent peril” from the warming atmosphere, asserted that emissions of CO2 from Kings-north would damage property through the effects of the climate change they would help to cause.

The acquittal was the second time in a decade that the “lawful excuse” defence has been successfully used by Greenpeace activists. In 1999, 28 Greenpeace campaigners led Lord Melchett, who was director at the time, were cleared of criminal damage after trashing an experimental field of GM crops in Norfolk. In each case the damage was not disputed – the point at issue was the motive.

A conservative parliamentary candidate also testified on their behalf. If Greenpeace can get prominent scientists and politicians to turn up to their trial, I wonder who the Ploughshares folk could get to testify on their behalf?  😉

22 Comments Posted

  1. # kiore1 Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    I agree that the rightness of destroying an abortion clinic (or a vivisection laboratory) is a philsophical issue.

    A schizophrenic tries to strangle someone because he thinks they are the devil…..

  2. Sorry – computer problems.

    I agree that the rightness of destroying an abortion clinic (or a vivisection laboratory) is a philosophical issue. And one that is independent of the jury’s verdict. But the issue of whether damage to property was justified on the basis of whether it was preventing further damage is a legal issue. It depends both on the law, and on the evidence concerning global warming.

    Incidentally, a Christian activist group operation ploughshares used a similar defense after they were charged with criminal damage when they smashed up a warplane. they argued that it is legal to use reasonable force to prevent a crime, the crime being that of genocide. the warplane was to be sold to Suharto so he could bomb or strafe civilians in East Timor.

  3. bjchip:
    Your post is based on the presupposition that abortion is not killing a human being, ie murder. This is a philosophical issue.

    If abortion is just something the mother is doing to her own body, then your logic stands.

    If abortion is truly murder of a defenceless child, then this immediate murder (of thousands of children just in NZ every year) is far worse than the potential for possible deaths down the track due to global warming.

  4. Can you convince the whole jury you were preventing greater damage? In parts of the USA that is the case and in THOSE states access to abortions and contraceptive advice is curtailed drastically. Women have to travel…. they take other measures to control something that is not entirely in their control. Some die in the process. So you takes your chances. There’s more to the answer than that however….

    The burning of coal in that plant subjects EVERY member of the society, no matter what other choices they make, to the perils of global warming, acid rain and the like. It affects everyone.

    The presence of the clinic affects only individuals who wish to exercise what we perceive as a right to choose and the children they might choose not to have now and other children they might choose to have later.

    You can convince very few 12 member juries in most places, to agree that the society as a whole is damaged by the presence of a clinic.


  5. “Those who abandon the rule of law through loopholes inspire anarchy. I hope it doesn’t reach here!”

    Yay for anarchy! Though it’s those in power who inspire it, by creating laws and systems that institutionalise injustice.

    The answer to Mr. Dennis is that society holds collective values, if you live in a society that collectively reviles abortion, they will let you off. If you live in a society that collectively believes climate change is a looming threat and holds industry to account for its actions,. the people above will be let off.

  6. “depending on the personal baggage and values each person brings to the jury room.”

    Er, isn’t that meant to be irrelevant? I can believe that one or two might be strongly prejudiced, but i can’t believe the whole jury would ignore the instructions from the court on how to handle the evidence. They are given a list of factors to consider when reaching a verdict, so can’t imagine them ignoring the list unless we’re talking an all-white 1957 Mississippi jury and a black defendant.

  7. The answer, Mr Dennis, is down to the jury. One jury might have you hang, yet another might have you go free, depending on the personal baggage and values each person brings to the jury room.

    Do you care to roll the dice?

  8. Were I an anti-abortion activist, and vandalised an abortion clinic, should I be prosecuted? Or should I go free because I believed I was preventing greater damage?

  9. There were a couple of comments on this at hot-topic:

    Coal plants damage private property (and people, and the rest of the biosphere) much worse than a bit of paint. Who will compensate me for breathing coal emissions, and for the cost of climate change to me and my descendants? Oh, I see, for the coal companies that’s a freebie. How special for them.

    21 rata 09.12.08 at 9:06 pm

    i think the precendent of coal companies disturbing our climate system for profit is pretty unsettling.


    It’s very tricky….

  10. One News Colmar Brunton Sept 2008
    Party Support

    * National 53.0% (+2.0%)
    * Labour 35.0% (-2.0%)
    * Green 5.0% (+1.5%)
    * NZ First 1.8% (-0.8%)
    * Maori 1.8% (-1.3%)
    * United Future 0.0% (-0.7%)
    * ACT 2.0% (+1.4%)
    * Progressive 0.0% (nc)
    “Don’t make waves”

  11. Private property rights may be important but not enough care is being taken of the global commons – atmosphere, water and biodiversity.

    People who care for the global commons deserve support too.

  12. Not really a precedent; another bunch got off over a decade ago, something about a plane being damaged, but in the intervening times plenty of folks have been found guilty in similar circumstances.

    Bottom line: if you can convince the jury, you get to walk. Its roulette with a jury, pretty much like the rest of the legal process…

  13. “After a weekend of heavy rain, the forecast remains gloomy for the week ahead. The rain will keep on falling in the months and years to come as Britain experiences flooding on an increasingly dramatic scale. By now we all know, or should know, that continuing to build on floodplains is not a very good idea. Unless we begin to design a new generation of buildings on stilts, or learn how to raise land up from the water as the Dutch do, or design new towns along the lines of Venice, then we should abandon all plans to build where waters are likely to rise.

    Will we? Not a chance. In Britain floodplains are cheap land. We want lots of cheap new housing, ever more supermarkets, major roads, distribution depots and heavy traffic to serve the latest low-cost estates. You can see these homes currently marching their way along the flanks of Ely in Norfolk,”


  14. Mr. Dennis I’d like to know at which point you draw the line…? For example are not government agencies in the wrong when they change law in order allow them to carry out exploitation of the environment when it is clearly against the will of the people and the benefit of the country/planet? The government is not always holier than thou and I would consider ‘breaking the law’ so to speak to stand up for actual justice… Think apartheid, Guantanamo Bay, 1080, GE field trials, Ahmed Zaoui, inaction on the environment so on…

    Our government and governments around the world break international law constantly, particularly humanitarian law – what a joke!

  15. Actually the point is that they did not cause criminal damage. A jury of their peers found they were not guilty of causing criminal damage. So it is inaccurate, and indeed libelous to say they did cause criminal damage.

    And the not guilty verdict was nothing to do with the justice of their cause; they were found not guilty because it was considered they were preventing greater damage, also to private property.

  16. Mr D – You rush to judgement! Where did I say that either myself or worse still, the Green Party supported this decision? I wasn’t in the jury box. I haven’t heard the evidence and neither have you. Is either of us fit to throw stones either way? Of course I support the cause, and hence my interest in the case and its outcome. Thou presumest too much!

  17. This is a sad case. Sure they think they are trying to stop a greater harm. But they caused criminal damage and got off scott free. This is a dangerous precedent.

    You may like it in this instance because it was someone you support supporting someone you dislike. But what if it were the other way around?

    We must still protect private property rights. It is extremely worrying that we have a party in parliament that could agree with major vandalism of private property like this, however just the cause.

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