On the morning of December 4, 2023, a group of Dorset residents joined about 500 others around the country holding signs outside Bournemouth Crown Court, as part of the growing public campaign Defend Our Juries.
Their signs displayed the centuries-old principle of ‘jury equity’, which is the right of all jurors in British courtrooms to acquit a defendant according to their own conscience and irrespective of the directions of the judge. Famously, in 1984, a jury acquitted the civil servant, Clive Ponting, on this principle after he exposed government misinformation to the public and Parliament concerning the ‘Falklands War’
Risk of arrest
Merely by displaying these signs, the group runs the risk of arrest. In September 2023, the Solicitor General announced he would prosecute 68-year-old retired social worker, Trudi Warner, for contempt of court, for holding a similar sign outside Inner London Crown Court in March. Then in October, two young women were arrested by the Metropolitan police for doing the same thing.
Collective action works
There are strong indications that united, collective action to defend the principle of jury equity is proving effective. Just days after the Solicitor General’s announcement to prosecute Warner, 252 people gathered outside 25 crown courts across England and Wales, holding similar signs in solidarity with Trudi Warner. None were arrested and there has been no indication of a police action since then. An investigation into people previously arrested for displaying posters with the same message has now been discontinued.
The Defend our Juries campaign has gathered powerful support from eminent professors of law, such as Professors Richard Vogler and John Spencer. In the words of Professor Vogler:
“George Orwell noticed the tendency of repressive law to degenerate into farce when truth becomes a lie and common sense is heresy. This is worth remembering now that the solicitor general, Michael Tomlinson KC, has concluded that it is right to take action against … Trudi Warner, for holding up a sign outside a criminal court, simply proclaiming one of the fundamental principles of the common law: the right of a jury to decide a case according to its conscience.”
Mounting concern over jury trial
In March 2023, Dorset resident and Portland Town Councillor, Giovanna Lewis, was jailed for breaking a crown court judge’s ruling by explaining to the jury why she had taken action – she was trying to influence government to help prevent deaths from fuel poverty and climate change in the UK and around the world. Giovanna says that,
“during my trial I never once heard the jury being told they could base their verdict on either their conscience or conviction, instead being told it was only lawful to base their judgements on legal technicalities.”
The demonstrations come amid mounting public concern that political trials, such as the trial over the toppling of the statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, are being turned into show trials. A succession of jury acquittals, including the acquittal of the Colston four in January 2022, have embarrassed the government and certain corporate interests. In the Colston case, Suella Braverman, who was Attorney General at the time, decided that the jury of Bristol people had got it wrong, and brought a successful appeal to the Court of Appeal, changing the law.
Measures to stop juries reaching not guilty verdicts
Measures being taken by courts in response include defendants being banned from explaining to the jury why they did what they did; even people who have taken peaceful direct action are now being sent to prison for up to 3 years. In some cases, people have been sent to prison just for trying to explain their actions to the jury for saying the words ‘climate change’ and ‘fuel poverty’ in court. Defendants are banned from explaining the principle of ‘jury equity’ to the jury, even though it is a well-established principle of law, which is set in marble at the original entrance to the Old Bailey.
Local residents take part
Explaining why they are prepared to risk arrest for this legal principle local resident: Peter Aldous, 77, a retired ship’s captain who lives in Blandford Forum, and was born in Bournemouth, said:
“The jury system has been the basis of our justice system for centuries. Defendants must be allowed to state the whole truth and jurors must be allowed to make a decision based on their conscience. Politically-inspired judicial prejudice must not be allowed.”
And local resident Daniel Glennon, 51, a customer service trainer from Bournemouth said:
“I’m taking part in this action because I believe that our legal system should not stop defendants from telling the whole truth in court. Jurors should be free to make the decision they feel is right based on the full information. Our corrupt government, financed by fossil fuel interests, is hell bent on suppressing peaceful protest and manipulating legal cases involving activists. I’m here today to deliver a clear message – this will not stand and I’m willing to be arrested to make this point crystal clear.”
And a third resident:
Liz Elwick, 71, retired nurse and local authority worker from Bournemouth said:
“Clearly its vital for British citizens to have faith in their legal system and therefore jurors must be allowed to acquit a defendant if their conscience tells them to do so.”
About Defend our Juries
Defend our Juries is a new campaign with the following aims:
- 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.
Watch the film, ‘Right to Acquit’ which explains the legal background and reason for the campaign.