Extinction Rebellion Sheffield: Protester fined £1,500 for blocking road gets conviction quashed at Old Bailey
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Heather Hunt, of Heeley, was found guilty of wilfully obstructing the highway and fined £1,500 after taking part in an Extinction Rebellion (XR) demonstration in central London in 2019.
But after a two-and-a-half-year legal battle, she has finally succeeded in clearing her name, after getting her conviction quashed and the hefty fine overturned at the Old Bailey.
The 75-year-old former clinical psychologist says that despite what she has been through she would do it again, and she hopes her case will highlight the need for urgent action over the climate crisis and encourage others to join the battle.
“It’s a real victory for the right to protest, and a critical one because of the climate emergency we’re facing,” she said.
“There’s a massive cyclone at the moment affecting Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique but we don’t hear about that here even though it's connected to our culture and burning fossil fuels.
Why are Extinction Rebellion protesting about the climate crisis?
"The climate crisis is affecting parts of the world which have contributed least to climate change. It’s important we act in a way which draws attention to the climate emergency and puts pressure on the Government to act and crucially stop subsidising fossil fuels.
"When I was arrested it was only for standing on a road for 20 minutes, which didn’t cause major disruption. It seemed to be so outrageous for such a small amount of protest to end up with a criminal record and a big fine.”
Ms Hunt was arrested near Millbank in London during a protest in October 2019 and was detained in Brixton Police Station.
She told how she was acting as a supporter for fellow Extinction Rebellion activists who were sitting on the road when suddenly and with no warning she was grabbed from behind by an offier and told she was under arrest.
“I was shocked and surprised. I was not sitting in the road myself and had no warning to move and considered this a wrongful arrest. I thought the young officer had made a mistake and I told him this in the police van,” she said.
What happened when XR protester was arrested during protest?
She was put into the back of a police van, detained at Brixton police station for 14 hours and released on to the streets at 2am in the morning to return to the hostel where she was staying.
Ms Hunt was convicted at City of London Magistrates’ Court in June 2021, having defended herself after pleading not guilty to wilful obstruction of the highway.
Extinction Rebellion supported her appeal against the conviction, providing a solicitor to help prepare her case.
After reading the appeal statement, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) chose not to contest the case, meaning Ms Hunt did not have to appear at the Old Bailey.
The judge there heard the case and quashed the conviction in her absence, meaning the money she paid in fines and costs will be returned to her.
She is relieved to get her conviction overturned but still surprised she was found guilty in the first place.
Referring to her appearance at the magistrates’ court, she said: “I cross examined the arresting officer who agreed he did not give me a warning. I also made the case that I was engaged in a peaceful protest that in the face of the climate crisis is both proportionate and absolutely necessary.
How would new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill affect people’s right to protest over the climate emergency?
“I told the court about friends I have in Zimbabwe, whose lives are threatened now because of the continuous drought - crops are failing and wells have dried up. Millions of people like my friends are suffering and dying in other parts of the world now and they are least responsible for the carbon emissions which are causing climate breakdown.”
Ms Hunt has campaigned about climate change for 25 years, initially by signing petitions and writing to her MP.
She joined Extinction Rebellion after seeing members occupy bridges in Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth, and believing this was the kind of direct action needed given the immediacy of the threat to our planet.
She believes her victory is particularly relevant in light of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently going through parliament.
The bill, proposed partly in response to Extinction Rebellion’s protests in 2019, would give the Government and police greater powers to curb protests and arrest those involved.
It means anyone who ‘wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway which is part of the Strategic Road Network’ could be jailed for up to 51 weeks.
“I’m delighted that the conviction has been quashed. I know now there is at least one other Extinction Rebellion activist whose appeal has been quashed too,” said Ms Hunt.
“At this time with the draconian Police and Criminal Justice Bill in process I want to share this story of my conviction being overturned, which upholds the right for peaceful protest.
“Certainly I will continue to protest peacefully in solidarity with people around the world who are dying and whose lives are being disrupted because of climate breakdown. I will continue until the Government acts proportionately to mitigate the crisis and rectify injustice.
"I hope my case will encourage more people to take a stand. Not everybody has to be blocking roads and getting arrested. It’s about joining forces with others to put pressure on our MPs and local authorities.
"There are lots of groups you can get involved with, like Extinction Rebellion, Sheffield Climate Alliance and Greenpeace, and joining one of them is a great way of getting more engaged with what’s going on without feeling alone.
"I couldn’t have done what I have on my own, and I’m so grateful to Extinction Rebellion for all the support it’s given me.”