From a Single Sign to a Conscious Shift: Empowering the Public on Jury Rights

By Laura Kaarina Korte and Sally Davidson
Posted on 28th November 2023
Laura Kaarina Korte holding a sign with the law written on it
Laura Kaarina Korte

The days are upon us when the British government begins High Court legal proceedings against a retired social worker who held up a sign with the law on it.

Trudi Warner, 68, from London stood outside Inner London Crown Court in March this year with a sign stating a centuries old right of juries. She now faces proceedings for Contempt of Court under the direction of the Solicitor General, Michael Tomlinson KC. Perhaps the state did not anticipate that within days of the notice to Warner of her impending prosecution, hundreds more people would stand alongside her, visiting their local Crown Courts holding signs that replicated hers.

In a remarkable display of unity and solidarity, on Monday 25 September, 252 members of the public imitated Trudi’s action by displaying signs communicating the right of juries outside criminal courts across England and Wales, twenty-five in total; from Truro to Carlisle, and Swansea to the Old Bailey. This day marked the start of the Defend Our Juries campaign and sent a clear message to the judiciary and to the state that ordinary people will not stand by whilst our democratic and constitutional rights are threatened. 

In recent years, an increasing number of cases stemming from protest groups, particularly those involving nonviolent direct action, have been heard by juries at the Crown Court. As part of campaigns of civil disobedience, many people have sought to raise awareness, change government policy, call out corporate greed and demand action on issues of national and international significance by putting their own well-being, liberty, and at times, even their own physical safety on the line by taking nonviolent direct action.

Historically, campaigns of mass civil disobedience can be linked to significant societal or legislative shifts, such as women's suffrage and civil rights. Statues of leading lights from such movements, such as Emmeline Pankurst, M.K. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, grace Parliament Square and the surrounding area, testifying to their substantial democratic contribution. Whilst establishing direct causation between such campaigns and the resulting changes often proves elusive until viewed from much later. Be it mass nonviolent civil resistance, roadblocks of critical national infrastructure or targeted individual protest actions, if those who participate find themselves facing prosecution without assurances of fair and effective trials, we have ultimately faltered as a democracy and in upholding universal human rights.

In Britain in 2023, if those who participate in nonviolently blocking critical infrastructure or targeted direct actions find themselves facing prosecution without the assurance of fair and effective trial, we have ultimately faltered as a democracy and have failed to uphold universal human rights.

Potentially the starting point for the state’s programme seeking to undermine trials by jury could be marked as the the acquittal, in 2021, of six nonviolent activists (the Shell 6) who cracked windows and painted messages showcasing Shell’s campaigns of public misinformation and complicity in the climate emergency on the walls and windows of Shell’s HQ in London. The trial of the Shell 6 highlighted the significance of allowing defendants to voice their beliefs and motivations, even in the absence of traditional legal defences — there being no defence is law. However, their acquittal sparked a shift in how judges began to direct juries.

The following year in early 2022, the four young people were acquitted of Criminal Damage charges by a jury (the Colston 4). Again in their trial, the defendants were permitted to share their whole truth with the jurors trying them; they shared their motivations, and the full context of their actions, the toppling down of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in to Bristol Harbour during the aftermath of George Flloyd’s murder at the hands of police officers in the US. The case of the Colston 4 emphasised the importance of jurors being allowed to see the bigger picture and the pivotal role juries play in providing a much needed ‘reset’ to society (and the law) when the common sense and ‘convictions’ of ordinary people are applied. However (again) the state’s response to their acquittals was to seek to undermine the availability of legal defences through the unusual route of a Government appeal

Jury trial is supremely important to the British public and it would be politically almost impossible for the Government to remove it. So the courts have surreptitiously sought to undermine the substance of jury trial, while preserving its appearance.

Move on again, one year, to March 2023, in a series of trials of people from the campaign group Insulate Britain caused alarm after the defendants' ability to share their motivations and beliefs were removed. Restrictions imposed by HHJ Reid prevented any reference to the critical issues as part of the defence, effectively limiting the jury's understanding of the case. Reid’s ruling evolved as the trials progressed, in total the defendants were effectively banned from mentioned 57 items in their case. The items listed on Reid’s ruling prevented defendants from using the terms ‘fuel poverty’ and ‘climate crisis’, they were prevented from talking about their motivations, beliefs, the context of their actions, the effectiveness of civil disobedience, successful campaigns that have deployed civil disobedience such as the civil rights campaign, UK government inaction in relation to the climate or the energy crises, I could go on… A barrister involved in these cases remarked on Reid’s ruling that in omission of these key pieces of evidence, the jury might be inclined to assume that these defendants stopped traffic on the M25 motorway for no reason at all.

Notably, the first two trials of Insulate Britain supporters to take place prior to Reid’s extensive ruling, considering the same actions but with different defendants which Reid presided over, where those on trial were able to share their motivations with the jury, seven defendants were unanimously acquitted by the juries who tried them. 

Consequently as the prohibited items on Reid’s ruling grew in number the trials—meant to cover the charge of Causing a Public Nuisance for a disruptive roadblock action—became stripped down to lengthy trials about traffic flows and bus diversions with no context given to the jurors.

Three self-represented defendants who defied Reid’s ruling by speaking openly about their motivations for taking action to the jury during closing arguments were imprisoned for 7 to 8  weeks as a penalty for being found in Contempt of Court. It was at this point in responsive to their imprisonment and the continued silencing taking place in Judge Reid’s courtroom Trudi Warner peacefully stood outside Inner London Crown Court with a handwritten sign that displayed a modern English equivalent of the ‘right of juries’ inscribed on a plaque on the wall of the Central Criminal Court, often referred to as ‘Old Bailey’.

Warner later remarked that she remembered being taught about the right of juries at school. The plaque, still on display at the Old Bailey, and the words on Warner’s sign are the epitome of Bushell's case in 1670 and the doctrine the case established—jury nullification and independence. Jury nullification, or a ‘perverse verdict’, occurs when jurors reach a not guilty verdict despite a Judge’s direction that a defendant has no defence in law. 

The importance of fair and effective trials for those involved in acts of civil disobedience cannot be overstated. Ensuring individuals are provided the opportunity for a just legal defence is a fundamental pillar of democracy and universal human rights. 

Recent jury trials of those undertaking acts of nonviolent civil disobedience have shone a spotlight on the evolving dynamics between jurors, the judiciary, and the essence of the law. Simultaneously, we see the government's push for guilty verdicts for those who challenge the state and the rushed-through legislation to ensure the subsequent penalties are increased to an unprecedented scale. Deterrence and the chilling effect in action as the British government aims to suppress dissent. The significance of preserving the integrity of legal proceedings and upholding the right to a fair trial cannot be overstated.

So we come back to where I started, September 2023, the Defend Our Juries campaign is birthed, in response to state interference in jury trials, and in a show of unity initiated by the humble action of one woman, Trudi Warner.

The principle of juror’s rights being upheld by the hundreds of people who make up the campaign from all walks of life, across generations, are a powerful showcase of ordinary people upholding the law, this has been confirmed by prominent legal professionals. Professor John Spencer, one of the country’s leading authorities on criminal law, has undertaken a detailed analysis of the principle of jury equity (often referred to as ‘‘jury nullification’). In particular he’s drawn attention to the case of Regina vs Goncalves [2011] EWCA Crim 1703, [2013] 2 CrAppR 14 (at [38]), from 2011, where the Court of Appeal state directly: 

"... a jury is entitled to acquit and its reasons for so doing are unknown. It is their right which cannot be questioned."

The Defend Our Juries campaign hosts silent vigil-style actions outside Crown Courts across England and Wales to bring to public attention the programme to undermine trial by jury and to inform the public en masse on their right to, when on a jury, acquit a defendant according to their conscience irrespective of a Judge’s directions.