Passionate words on being judged by a jury

A case close to my heart, both environmentally and geographically, has just been concluded in Leeds, UK. The Drax 29 were charged under the Malicious Damage Act of 1861 with obstruction of a train carrying fuel to the Drax power station in June 2008. In a highly organised protest the climate change campaigners boarded a coal train, offloaded its contents onto the railway track and caused serious disruption to rail services.

The activists never denied that they acted to stop the train, but attempted at thier trial this week to justify their actions based on “genuine and deeply felt motives”, in other words arguing that they had a lawful excuse for their actions. the judge had initially refused to allow them to raise their excuse of climate change but in the end agreed a deal with the defenants whereby some evidence and argument was allowed on the issue. However, the judge made it clear that the defence of necessity was ultimately not available to the protesters.

Today the defendants were found guilty and will be sentenced later, although the judge has indicated that they are unlikely to face imprisonment.

All of this is interesting and prompts consideration of issues such as the right to protest, the ambit of necessity defences and significantly the interrelationship between law and dempcracy. In the context of the debate currently going on in the Dáil regarding trial by jury the closing statement for the defence is a very compelling document. The statement relates specifically to the role of the jury in relation to cases of direct action where laws are broken on the basis of deeply held beliefs, and the right of a jury to decide a case based on the facts, regardless of the legal direction made by the judge. But the principles eloquently presented in the context of the Drax case should reinforce the significance of the jury not only to the criminal justice system, but also with regards justice and the overall effective health and wellbeing of a nations democracy.

Some highlights are reproduced below, but follow the link to read in full:

“You’ve heard it said already I think, that the judge decides about the law, but the jury decide about the facts. What does that mean? It means you the jury can decide as you see fit. You the jury have a constitutional right to follow your own judgement and not necessarily follow the judge’s directions to find us guilty. In other words, you get to make the final decision. In law this principle is called the jury’s power of nullification, and it’s been a right that has been regularly used over the years when juries have felt the law has been applied harshly, or inappropriately, or unjustly, or incorrectly.

The freedom that you have is what enables the law, where necessary, to move forward. It is what allows you to look beyond the confines of this court to the wider world, and to make a judgement based not just on law, but to make a judgement based on justice. Justice is the force that underpins and breathes life into the law, and it is your role as the jury to see that justice as you see it is done.

We are happy to be judged by you, the jury.”