The aims of the Defend Our Juries campaign are:
- to bring to public attention the programme to undermine trial by jury in the context of those taking action to expose government dishonesty and corporate greed
- to raise awareness of the vital constitutional safeguard that juries can acquit a defendant as a matter of conscience, irrespective of a judge’s direction that there is no available defence (a principle also known as ‘jury equity’ or ‘jury nullification‘)
- to ensure that all defendants have the opportunity to explain their actions when their liberty is at stake, including by explaining their motivations and beliefs.
The right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers is a vital protection against the abuse of power. It dates back to the Magna Carta of 1215 (even though at the time the principle benefited only men of a certain standing). Whereas judges are paid by the state, a jury of 12 randomly chosen members of the public is independent and democratic, bringing the moral common sense of ordinary people into the courtroom.
That’s particularly important where cases involve a political dimension, such as when people have taken action in opposition to the government or to powerful, corporate interests; even more so when people are now being imprisoned for up to 3 years for peaceful acts of resistance (more than the starting point sentence for a serious sexual assault).
In recent years, juries, when they have been allowed to hear all the relevant evidence, have been siding with those taking action to expose government dishonesty and corporate greed.
Among others, in April 2021 a jury acquitted 6 of ‘the Shell7’. In January 2022 a jury acquitted ‘the Colston 4’, who toppled a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour. In November 2022 a jury acquitted members of Palestine Action for targeting the arms manufacturer Elbit, which makes drones used to kill Palestinians. In January 2023 a jury acquitted Insulate Britain campaigners after an M4 roadblock. In February 2023 a jury acquitted Burning Pink campaigners, who had splashed pink paint over Conservative, Labour and Green Party HQs. In June 23 a jury acquitted ‘the Brook House 3’, who disrupted deportations to Jamaica, after the defendants argued that it was their ‘duty to resist violent and racist government policies’.
These acquittals have enraged the government, corporate interests and the right wing press, leading to a series of measures to disempower juries, reducing their role to that of rubber stamping the directions of the judge.
Following Suella Braverman’s successful appeal in the Colston 4 case (when she was Attorney General), measures taken by the courts to undermine the right to a fair trial in cases involving the government’s political opponents include:
- Banning those engaged in campaigns of political resistance from explaining their motivations and beliefs to the jury, despite the oath/affirmation to tell ‘the whole truth’.
- Disallowing or ignoring relevant evidence and witnesses (including expert testimony as to the Government’s failure to act on the scientific advice).
- Telling the jury that motives, even if articulated, are irrelevant and must be ignored.
- Sending people to prison just for using the terms “climate change” and “fuel poverty” in court.
- Banning references to a jury’s right to acquit a defendant as a matter of conscience.
- Arresting and referring for prosecution those who remind jurors of their right to make decisions on their conscience.
- Directing the jury that defences such as necessity, proportionality or reasonable excuse are not available.
- Threatening to remove the jury altogether and proceed to judge only trial under Criminal Justice Act 2003, s. 46.
The campaign is being organised and supported by diverse members of the public from across our communities, including doctors, nurses, teachers, a group of Quakers, parents, grandparents and young people. It is also backed by the climate justice charity, Plan B.Earth and direct action group Trident Ploughshares. Leading members of the legal profession have also spoken out publicly. Professor Bill Bowring, a barrister and leading legal academic, has said:
“The right of a jury to acquit despite a direction from the judge that there is no defence, known in the US and UK as jury nullification, jury equity, or a ‘perverse verdict’, has been an essential feature of trial by jury in common law countries for centuries … this right must be defended unconditionally, and the present attacks on it would fatally damage trial by jury.”
We know how much the right to trial by jury is valued by the British public as a whole. When the government was consulting on a British Bill of Rights, more than 80% of respondents wanted to see the right to trial by jury at the top of it (alongside the right to free, public healthcare).
That’s why the government’s attempts to undermine trial by jury for its political opponents need to be conducted by stealth. They cannot admit publicly that they are setting out to undermine the power of juries. The antidote to this anti-democratic programme is to bring the issues into the public domain through an open and public campaign, which sparks a national debate. We know that if we can do that, the public will be on our side.
No. The signs are intended to raise public awareness of a vital constitutional principle. That includes jurors, but also other court users, including lawyers, judges, and all members of the public, who are concerned to preserve the right to trial by jury.
No. Defend Our Juries believes that everyone has the right to a fair trial. Those subject to the current repressive measures in court include those taking action as part of campaigns to confront Government dishonesty and corporate greed, whether concerning the supply of arms to authoritarian regimes, or the degradation of our land, air and water for short-term corporate profit.
All have a right to a fair trial on the basis of the evidence, which must include a reasonable opportunity to explain the context for their actions to the court.
Human actions can only be understood in their proper context. If a woman charged with assaulting her husband has been subjected to violent domestic abuse at his hands, the jury cannot do justice to the case if that history is concealed.
Normally deliberately breaking your neighbour’s window is a crime. But if you’ve broken it to help them escape when their house is on fire, that’s a different situation. If those charged with an offence of public nuisance have taken action only because they are in fear for their own lives, the lives of their children and the wider public, the jury should likewise be able to take that into account.
Yes. The penalty of hanging for stealing sheep was abolished in this country because juries refused to convict people who were clearly guilty of that offence to spare them the gallows. In the US, after the passing of the Fugitive Slaves Act 1850, many US juries in the northern states declined to convict those who had helped the enslaved to gain their freedom.
In 1985, a British jury acquitted Clive Ponting for breach of the Official Secrets Act after he leaked a document which exposed the Government’s dishonesty over the sinking of the Argentine ship, the General Belgrano, with the loss of 323 lives, despite the judge’s direction that he had no defence in law.
The campaign originated with the action of Trudi Warner, a 68 year-old retired social worker and legal observer. Trudi was moved by the silencing and repression she had witnessed in court to hold up a sign outside Inner London Crown Court.
A judge there had been banning defendants from explaining their motivations to the jury and sending people to prison just for using the words ‘climate change’ and ‘fuel poverty’ in court. Trudi’s sign set out the principle that juries have a right to acquit a defendant as a matter of conscience, even if a judge directs them that the defendant has no legal defence.
Yes, her sign was a correct and neutral statement of the law, based on legal advice. Jurors do have the right to acquit a defendant, irrespective of any directions the judge gives.
The right was first established in 1670 when the Recorder of London tried to compel a jury to convict two Quaker preachers, William Penn and William Mead, for holding an unlawful assembly. Chief Justice Vaughan, of the Court of Common Pleas, held the Recorder’s approach to be unlawful. He ruled that juries have the right to “give their verdict according to their convictions”. That ruling is celebrated with a marble plaque in the Old Bailey. The principle is taught to our children in schools and explained in a film on the Supreme Court’s website.
No. Although the original 1670 case refers to ‘decisions’, there’s in fact no corresponding right of a jury to convict a defendant. If a judge considers that the prosecution has failed to make out their case, the judge rules that there is ‘no case to answer’. When that happens, the judge directs the jury to enter a ‘not guilty’ verdict. The jury has no right to ignore such a direction.
Setting out the principle that a jury has a right to acquit on their conscience is not an encouragement to acquit. It is a simple and neutral statement of the law. It empowers jurors to act on their conscience. It prevents them from being pressured by the judge into giving a verdict against their conscience (as appeared to happen when a jury, following the directions of a judge at Inner London Crown Court, returned a verdict of guilty ‘with regret’).
After holding up her sign, Trudi Warner was arrested. She was sent to the Old Bailey for a hearing (where the same principle she was defending is set in marble at the original entrance). The Old Bailey judge referred her to the Attorney General, the leading lawyer to the Government. In July the Solicitor General, who deputises for the Attorney General, wrote to Trudi Warner indicating that he considered her conduct to be contempt of court, an offence which can result in a prison sentence of up to 2 years. He indicated that there were ongoing discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service about whether she could also be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice.
Dozens of people from all walks of life have since replicated Trudi’s action, holding similar signs outside Inner London Crown Court in May and Isleworth Crown Court in July.
Those holding signs outside Inner London Crown Court have also been referred to the Attorney General:
“Climate activists risk contempt charges over placards outside court” (The Times, 2 June 23).
More than 40 signholders have now written to the Solicitor General to say, “If you prosecute Trudi Warner, you should prosecute us too”.
Some people have also chosen to hold blank signs outside court, as the international symbol of state silencing and repression.
The Defend Our Juries campaign will continue to organise and support sign holding actions in solidarity with trials of those facing silencing and repression in court. But given the public support for the campaign, we will also be organising national days of action, in which groups of people will uphold the law on signs at their nearest crown court, whether or not a political trial is being heard.
There is a possibility that a repressive government will respond to the Defend Our Juries campaign by changing the law, ie. by abolishing the centuries’ old right of juries to acquit on their conscience, irrespective of the directions of the judge.
If they do that, they will try to do it quietly, because there are no votes in disempowering juries (ie ordinary people).
So we need to do everything we can to bring the principle to public attention, including with a national day of action. The national day provides a pathway to action for everyone, by attending their local Crown Court, and gets people talking about this around the country. Our aim is to make it politically impossible for the Government to remove this principle of trial by jury.
We do not know what cases the juries will be trying in those courts on the day. In much the same way, when we conduct an action in solidarity with a particular case, most of the juries passing by will be involved in different cases. But that only helps us to make our point. This is a principle that applies in every case. It is the law of the land. That’s why it’s set in marble at the original entrance to the Old Bailey.
Given what’s happened to Trudi Warner, there’s a risk for anyone holding up a similar sign of a similar consequence (eg the threat of prosecution for contempt of court, potentially resulting in a sentence of imprisonment or a fine).
Our assumption, however, is that with growing numbers of the public doing the same thing, it will become practically and politically impossible for the government to prosecute so many people for literally upholding the law, exercising their right to freedom of expression in the public interest. Eventually, the government will be forced to back down.
Defend Our Juries will share experience and resources to help you self-organise a sign-holding action outside court.