Sid’s Sandwich

Zoë Blackler

Over the last three years, more than two thousand Extinction Rebellion protesters have been prosecuted, mostly in the magistrates courts for minor offences, typically sitting in the road and refusing to move. A handful of cases, with charges carrying more serious penalties, have been escalated to the crown courts to be heard before a jury. Seven Extinction Rebellion crown court trials have now concluded and a clear trend has emerged. Juries are extremely reluctant to convict climate protesters even when they have no defence in law.

The first sign of hesitancy came in December 2019 at the trial of three people for obstructing a train during a protest on the Docklands Light Railway. After the judge ruled their planned defence inadmissible, the jury returned a guilty verdict ‘with regret’. Outright mutiny followed in April 2021 at the trial of six people charged with criminal damage to Shell’s London HQ. In directing the jury, the judge was clear there were no legal grounds for a not guilty verdict. All the same, the jury acquitted. ‘Perverse verdicts’ of this kind, also known as jury nullifications, are extremely rare. In the English legal system, a jury has absolute liberty to rule as it chooses; its verdict is beyond review or sanction.

One of the defendants, Senan Clifford, told the Shell jurors in his closing statement:

A true verdict means that you make a conscious consideration of the law, as the judge has outlined it; that you think carefully about what he has said, but then, that you do not necessarily follow it. It is your decision.

Peter Hain observed in the Guardian at the time that ‘the law is out of step with the public.’ Faced with the prospect of more perverse verdicts by rebellious juries, Hain suggested the Crown Prosecution Service should halt all pending Extinction Rebellion trials ‘on the grounds that the law readily provides: that they are “not in the public interest”.’

But Extinction Rebellion jury trials have continued to stack up, and so have acquittals. Last December, an Inner London Crown Court jury unanimously cleared six protesters who stopped a DLR train at Canary Wharf station in April 2019. In January, another acquittal followed for a similar action at Shadwell station, also in 2019. Unlike Shell, these were not perverse verdicts. Both trials followed a landmark Supreme Court ruling that reinforced the rights of peaceful protesters, strengthening their chance of a defence in law and giving jurors far greater leeway to find in their favour.

The Ziegler judgment (which upheld the acquittal of four anti-arms protesters in a case that predates Extinction Rebellion) established that a peaceful protest can still be lawful even if ‘deliberately’ disruptive. Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights provide protesters with a ‘lawful excuse’ for offences committed during such a protest. What criminal courts must decide, the Supreme Court justices ruled, is whether a conviction would be a ‘disproportionate interference’ in those rights when balanced against the rights of others. Crucially, in the Canary Wharf and Shadwell trials, Justice Silas Reid gave responsibility for answering that question to the jury.

A phrase often repeated by judges hearing Extinction Rebellion cases is that theirs are courts of law, not ‘morality’. I’ve followed all seven Extinction Rebellion crown courts trials, as well as countless magistrates’ court proceedings. They turn invariably on the question of ‘morality’. A not guilty plea is rarely a direct dispute of the charge: defendants do not deny the actions they are accused of, but argue they were justified, either under human rights law or the common law of necessity (when a crime is committed to protect human life, like breaking a window of a burning house to rescue those trapped inside), or because they were seeking to prevent another, greater crime.

There is also an approach based on the notion of consent and known in XR circles as ‘Sid’s Sandwich’, after the Shell defendant James ‘Sid’ Saunders. According to this defence, the members of an organisation targeted by Extinction Rebellion would, if made aware of the true facts of the climate emergency and their own complicity, have consented to the action, much as someone with a nut allergy might at first be angry if you snatched their sandwich, until you explained that it contained peanut butter.

Many hours in all these trials are spent on legal arguments between judge and counsel about what evidence may be put before jurors and how they should be directed. At the Shadwell trial in January, the jury was presented with two sets of undisputed facts:

1) At 6:45 a.m. on 17 October 2019, a female vicar in her late seventies, accompanied by a male vicar in his fifties, used a retractable ladder to climb onto the roof of a train they had just left while another man in his eighties superglued his hand to the outside of the carriage. Members of the public expressed irritation, before police arrived to remove them and the train was returned to service.

2) The scientific consensus on the effects of rising carbon emissions includes: collapsing ecosystems; increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, primarily in the Global South with the North starting to feel the effects; large parts of the world set to become uninhabitable; and the inadequacy of the predictions themselves, as earth’s systems come closer to irreversible tipping points.

One of the defendants, Rev. Sue Parfitt, told the jury that her ‘outrageous action’ was inevitable in view of the UK government’s ‘outrageous inaction’. She asked them to weigh the minor disruption caused by a 77-minute delay to London commuters against the catastrophe of runaway climate change. The jury returned their unanimous not guilty verdict after two hours.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, is trying to rein in public protest, and the current crop of prosecutions is under scrutiny. At the most recent trial in January, for the fourth and final railway protest of 2019, Justice Silas Reid dismissed the human rights defence. Uniquely for an XR action, the train stoppage at Canning Town sparked a violent response from groups of frustrated passengers. Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR provide no protection if there is a ‘danger to public order’. Reid ruled that ‘a properly directed jury could not reasonably conclude that a conviction in this case would not be proportionate.’ Denied the chance to decide for themselves, they duly delivered a guilty verdict. Their foreman was allowed to read a statement to the effect that it was based purely on legal procedure but that they wholeheartedly supported the protesters’ cause.

Canning Town bucked the acquittals trend, but the jury’s reluctance may worry the CPS and the home secretary as much the Shell jury’s perverse verdict. How wide the gap is between the government’s dislike of climate protesters and the public’s support for them looks set to become clearer. A further thirteen Extinction Rebellion jury trials are already scheduled with more expected for the spin-off campaign Insulate Britain.


  • 2 April 2022 at 3:03am
    John-Albert says:
    So. The laws are wrong, and Extinction Rebellion is doing things with just cause. It follows that your government should be changed completely. Unfortunately, as with Canada (where I'm from), you do not have proportional representation. So you're only going to get the other tory party into power anyhow .. that anyway is not doing enough to save the planet. So. Damn lucky there's enough people of good sense that Extinction Rebellion exists!

  • 3 April 2022 at 12:11pm
    Greencoat says:
    'Members of the public expressed irritation..’
    Love the understatement! They’d have been beaten half to death if the police hadn’t intervened.

    • 4 April 2022 at 2:16pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Greencoat
      And what will happen when climate change comes to the UK: with floods that come over the Thames Barrier, say? Will the British public 'beat half to death' the Nigel Lawsons and Nigel Farages who did their best to deny and delay action to combat climate change? Now that would start to make sense.

    • 5 April 2022 at 1:11pm
      Árainn Hawker says: @ Greencoat
      Just for your edification that comment was about the action at Canary Wharf station not Canning Town.

    • 7 April 2022 at 12:07am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Greencoat
      The London commuter's lack of sympathy is nothing new. A friend of mine once described a fellow passenger looking at their watch and tutting loudly in disgust when a delay was announced "owing to a body on the line." If the reality of a poor soul beneath the wheels of your train fails to stir your human compassion what chance the distant effects of climate change?

    • 10 April 2022 at 11:12pm
      Dan says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      If the reality of disrupting the lives of a trainful of tired people, and traumatising a driver doesn't convince you to take your life quietly and away from others, do you deserve compassion? For that matter it's hard to divine what comfort compassion would be to a corpse...

  • 6 April 2022 at 8:14pm
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    The way things are nowadays, it's probably worth pointing out that it is possible to oppose protesters' actions without necessarily thinking they should be thrown in the slammer. I'm not a supporter of Extinction Rebellion – largely because I think we've passed the stage where awareness raising is likely to do any good, and expressing support for the cause of protesting against climate change is becoming just another way of avoiding the issue – but I wouldn't regard any of the protests above as deserving of a criminal conviction. Being held up on the way to work is annoying (though nowhere near as annoying as being held up on the way home from work), but people shouldn't be hauled up in court for being annoying. You do wonder, though, whether juries will continue to be so sympathetic if climate protests ever become a real problem rather than an occasional minor nuisance.

  • 9 April 2022 at 1:10am
    Thomas Drapkin says:
    Juries can in fact be directed to acquit but not to convict.

  • 10 April 2022 at 1:39am
    nlowhim says:
    Not going to lie, but these kinds of stories really give hope for the future. A sliver of hope, mind you, but hope nonetheless. Of course I understand that it’s balanced with the news of the bodies of environmentalists in poorer countries, but I’ll take what I can get

  • 12 April 2022 at 2:20pm
    XopherO says:
    This is complicated. I was much involved with the CND demos of the late 50s and early 60s, including direct action. But in the end it became counter productive for various reasons, and they stopped. They had no effect on nuclear disarmament, never mind unilateral, but perhaps a small effect on the eventual test ban treaty, particularly CND in the USA. And recently Johnson has announced another forty US made bombs for Trident, adding nothing to the supposed deterrent but no doubt pleasing US arms manufacturers and the military. And we are at greater risk of their use than ever. They may indeed be a much greater threat than global warming. In fact a few big bombs would shoot enough dust into the upper atmosphere to end warming and bring about the so-called nuclear winter. Then there is the real threat of a very lethal pandemic, together with the weakening of antibiotics. So I just wonder what these protesters think they are doing apart from that sense of self-justification that CNDers felt at times, part of a kind of family, in the vanguard, with protest songs, social events etc. The UK does not contribute very much to global warming, 1 to 2% depending on how calculated - a bit bigger per capita, but it is the overall contribution that really matters. And the UK has done more than most in developing renewable sources. No doubt it could do more, but I don't think the 'protests' amount to much in that direction, which history would tend to confirm.

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