Climate protester confronts judge over ‘amoral’ order on what jury could hear

Four Insulate Britain protesters appeared at Inner London Crown Court before Judge Silas Reid ahead of their sentencing next week.

Laura Parnaby
Friday 10 March 2023 19:12 GMT
Insulate Britain campaigners (left to right) Stephen Pritchard, Roman Paluch-Machnik, Ruth Cook and Oliver Rock, outside Inner London Crown Court ahead of their sentencing for road blockages protests (Jordan Pettitt/PA)
Insulate Britain campaigners (left to right) Stephen Pritchard, Roman Paluch-Machnik, Ruth Cook and Oliver Rock, outside Inner London Crown Court ahead of their sentencing for road blockages protests (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

A road-blocking protester who could face jail has confronted a judge over the decision to ban him from mentioning his climate-related motivations to a jury.

Insulate Britain activist Stephen Pritchard, 63, from Bath, used his speech in court ahead of his sentencing to condemn the order made by Judge Silas Reid as “amoral” and “irrational”.

The Buddhist and former parish councillor appeared at Inner London Crown Court alongside former probation officer Ruth Cook, 71, gardener Roman Paluch-Machnik, 29, and carpenter Oliver Rock, 42.

I think that your rulings were amoral; I believe also they were irrational given the situation that we’re in

Stephen Pritchard

All four were convicted by a jury of causing a nuisance to the public by obstructing the highway after they stopped traffic at Junction 3 of the M4 on October 1 2021.

Insulate Britain said they are the first protesters to be convicted of causing a public nuisance – a common law offence which carries a maximum penalty of lifetime imprisonment.

Judge Reid had ruled that they should not mention their climate motivations during their trial, but asked them to “concentrate as much as possible on motivation” in their speeches ahead of sentencing.

He told them: “Blocking the road in the way you did, if it was done for no reason, is a serious matter and would result in a prison sentence.”

Pritchard told the court he turned to protest action after he had “exhausted every other means”, including writing to his MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, signing petitions, leading sustainability projects, and planting tens of thousands of trees.

He said he felt “overwhelming sadness” about Government “inaction” on climate change.

Addressing Judge Reid, Pritchard said: “I think that your rulings were amoral; I believe also they were irrational given the situation that we’re in.

“People’s lives are being lost. The only possible way I could imagine stopping peaceful civil resistance in this context is for you to tell me that this country has stopped pumping greenhouse gases into the air.

“I’m well aware of what prison is like, having been to prison. It’s not a very nice place. But I feel like I’m already a prisoner of my conscience.”

Rock said he has spent two months in prison over similar protests, and felt “traumatised” by it, adding that he was worried he would “have a complete mental breakdown” if he were jailed again.

He said there were “three prison guards to around 80 prisoners” and many took “bucketloads of drugs to control their anxiety”.

Rock, from Dulwich, south London, said he felt compelled to take part in the 2021 protest because he believes his young nephew and niece “don’t have a decent future” due to climate change.

“I feel really angry,” he said. “I think we are headed to a very dark place. I don’t think we are going to turn this ship around in time.

“I see the reactions from politicians, and they don’t know what to do and they just want everyone to be quiet.

“I don’t know what to do. I am desperate to change the future we are facing.”

Rock said his motivations were “moral and spiritual”, and referred to the court case as “fiddling” with paperwork “while the world is burning”.

Cook, who founded a training company after leaving the Probation Service, said she had spent decades “upholding the law” but resorted to disruptive protests so she could “look her grandchildren in the eye”.

Speaking about Judge Reid’s imposition of limits to their defence, the grandmother from Frome, Somerset, gestured to the jury bench and said: “I’m really aware of those empty seats.

“I am going to say things now that I wish they would have been able to hear, so that they weren’t discussing traffic data and listening to boring statistics about traffic, but knew why we did what we did.”

Cook, who is also a Quaker, said her work delivering aid in Africa on behalf of Oxfam and the Refugee Council and seeing climate refugees in the continent “changed me fundamentally”.

“I saw the impact that the climate emergency was having on their lives,” she said.

Cook said going through the court system had been “far more stressful than sitting on a motorway” and she did not intend to take part in any further law-breaking protests.

The defendants also mentioned the impact the campaign had had on their friend Xavier Gonzalez-Trimmer, who killed himself after spending time in prison over an Insulate Britain protest.

Pritchard said: “He was a brave, gentle and caring human being who could see the future we were facing and was desperate to do something about it, and now he’s dead.”

Paluch-Machnik used his speech to highlight the impact of climate change, adding: “This isnt a belief system of mine, this is a measurable process.”

The four will return to the same court for sentencing by Judge Reid on a date to be confirmed next week.

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