Climate change protestors, dubbed the ‘Heathrow 13’, have avoided prison sentences for a high-profile demonstration they staged at Heathrow Airport last July in protest at the ongoing effect of aircraft emissions. The group was found guilty in January of aggravated trespass for their occupation of the airport’s north runway on 13 July, which caused up to 25 flights to be cancelled.
A packed courtroom at Willesden Magistrates’ Court heard that the defendants would receive six week sentences, suspended for 12 months, instead of the jail sentences they had been told to expect. They have been banned from Heathrow for 12 months and ordered to complete unpaid community work. Among the 300-strong crowd of supporters outside the court were the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, in whose constituency Heathrow lies, and Green MP Caroline Lucas, both of whom said that jailing the group would be a mistake.
The demonstration itself saw activists from the direct action group Plane Stupid cut through a fence at Heathrow Airport and chain themselves together on a runway. They constructed a tripod-shaped structure out of scaffolding poles and secured themselves to it using arm locks which required heavy machinery to remove.
Compelled to act
The group defended their actions on the basis of that they were acting out of ‘necessity’ to prevent death or serious injury resulting from climate change caused by unnecessary, escalating and damaging CO2 emissions from aircraft travel, at Heathrow Airport in particular. They said they felt compelled to act after learning of stark evidence about the impact of aircraft emissions, including the fact that 31 people die prematurely each year within a 20-mile radius of Heathrow Airport due to its pollution. At trial, expert evidence was produced to show that 48% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK come from Heathrow.
Speaking for four of the defendants, Kirsty Brimelow QC highlighted what she called a ‘hard-fought for’ tradition of civil disobedience, championed by—amongst others—the suffragettes, and told the court that her clients believed they had been ‘acting in the public interest’. She said that the defendants had taken the line of action they did because all other avenues of protest had been exhausted.
Raj Chada, criminal defence lawyer at Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented four of the 13, said: ‘While relieved not to have received custodial sentences, my four clients stand by their actions and regard air pollution from Heathrow as a clear and present danger to human health. Melanie [Strickland], Sam [Sender], Sheila [Menon] and Robert [Basto], along with their fellow protestors were protesting a matter of life and death. The impact of air pollution is a ticking time bomb.’ The other nine defendants were represented by Mike Schwarz of Bindmans LLP.
Long and honourable history of civil disobedience
District judge Deborah Wright praised the defendants for their ‘positive good character’, ‘integrity’, ‘dedication’ and ‘commitment’, noting that ‘they acted as they did on the 13th July in what they genuinely believed was in the best interests of the public and society as a whole.’ Wright also recognised that the occupation of the runway was an act of last resort, and that all of the defendants had previously demonstrated their commitment to peacefully opposing the proposed expansion of Heathrow through attending marches and lobbying politicians; some had even moved to villages surrounding Heathrow to join the campaign against the building of a third runway. She went on to describe them as ‘principled people’, but said: ‘The fact that you are principled and have strong views about public interest doesn’t mean you can break the law.’
Reference was made in the sentencing remarks to the case of Jones and others  UKHL 16 in which the following observation was made by Lord Hoffman:
‘Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. ….it is the mark of a civilized community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind. But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law breakers on one side and the law enforcers on the other. The protestors behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protestors into account.’
In sentencing, District Judge Wright suggested that she did not interpret Lord Hoffman’s words as limiting sentences in cases such as this to the lowest end of the sentencing range; ‘rather it is a recognition that such cases require mature reflection. And a requirement to look at the aggravating and mitigating factors in each case’. The judge’s proposed sentence of 13 weeks imprisonment was reduced by more than half to account for the measures the group took to minimise any safety risks caused by their actions, and the positive good character references provided for all of the defendants. The sentence was then suspended to take into account ‘the disruption to your lives and to those of your families that an immediate custodial sentence would cause’, combined with the opinion expressed by Wright that a suspended sentence would provide a significant deterrent effect.
A ‘triumph for democracy’
Writing in the Guardian prior to the sentencing, Danni Paffard, one of the group’s members, spoke of her fears of being sent to prison, but reaffirmed that she stood by her actions. ‘While we’re on the wrong side of the law on this one, I am sure that we’ll end up on the right side of history,’ she wrote. Outside the court, she said: ‘I’m so relieved. It’s a triumph for democracy, a triumph for the movement.’
Jocelyn Cockburn, a human rights lawyer from Hodge Jones & Allen is currently investigating the possibility of bringing civil claims against the UK government for its failure to tackle the public health emergency created by aircraft emissions. These claims would proceed on the basis that the government is contravening its duty to protect the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.