Paul Brooke, co-chair of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups, had been accused of breaking a civil injunction which prevents protesters going inside 'safety zones' around trees due to be felled.
But Mr Justice Males dismissed the application on the grounds that Mr Brooke had attempted to enter a zone with a "genuine albeit mistaken" belief that a female protester was being injured by security guards attempting to remove her from the area around a tree on Meersbrook Park Road. He said the incident on January 22 had happened on a day of "considerable tension", shortly after a security guard had thrown a punch towards another campaigner in a scuffle.
Following the ruling, Mr Brooke said: "Apart from being relieved, I feel vindicated. I told the council in advance of the court case that I took the actions that I took in defence of another and that I was a good and honest citizen. The council decided to proceed against me anyway. It would appear that Justice Males has considered the facts and has decided that my actions were based on an honestly held belief that an assault was taking place."
Mr Brooke, a self-employed joiner, and three fellow campaigners, university lecturer Simon Crump, French magician Benoit Compin and retired schoolteacher Fran Grace, had all been accused of breaching the injunction in five different incidents between December 2017 and March 2018.
Sheffield Council was granted the civil injunction last summer, with Mr Brooke one of the named individuals to sign an undertaking not to breach it. The order was intended to stop campaigners preventing the removal of trees as part of the council's highways maintenance contract with Amey by standing and sitting directly underneath those which were due to be removed.
Following a three-day hearing at Sheffield High Court earlier this month in which the council had applied to commit all four to jail for contempt of court, Justice Males found Crump and Compin had both breached the injunction twice and Grace once.
The two men were given suspended prison sentences and the judge ruled no further action would be taken against Grace. All three are expected to face legal costs from Sheffield Council running into thousands of pounds, with the amount they need to pay yet to be determined.
At the hearing, Justice Males said he required more time to consider Mr Brooke's case.
A video played to court showed a protester with their face covered being removed from a safety zone by a number of security guards as they attempted to cling on to park railings and another person on the other side of the railings tried to hold on to their arms.
Moments after the masked protester started screaming, other people were seen on the video pushing at another metal barrier, which fell over. Mr Brooke was seen on the video swearing and kicking a barrier. A group of people then surrounded a threatened tree, forming a human chain around it.
Yaaser Vanderman, the barrister representing the council at the hearing, said Mr Brooke had entered the safety zone in an "aggressive and violent manner" but Owen Greenhall, representing Mr Brooke, said his client "had a genuine belief the female protester was under attack".
At a hearing in London today, Justice Males said he accepted Mr Brooke's explanation of events.
"I accept his evidence that this was his belief and that he entered the zone in order to come to the protester’s assistance in some way to prevent her (as he saw it) from being further hurt," the judge said.
"He acted instinctively and angrily on the spur of the moment, believing that this was necessary in response to what he had seen and heard. In all probability he had not formulated in his mind exactly what it was that he proposed to do, other than intervene to prevent what he thought was the likely rough and unjustifiable treatment of a female protester."
The judge said he reject the council's submission that the real reason Mr Brooke had entered the safety zone was to prevent the felling of a tree.
"If that was what he wanted to do, he could have entered the zone at any stage. I reject also his submission that it did not matter to Mr Brooke whether the female protester had been assaulted. On the contrary, it mattered a great deal to him," the judge said.
Justice Males concluded: "I have found that in principle defence of another may provide a justification for entering a safety zone contrary to the terms of the undertaking by Mr Brooke; that Mr Brooke had a genuine albeit mistaken belief that it was necessary to do so in order to prevent immediate harm to a female protester; and that in the circumstances which existed on the day in question he did no more than was reasonably necessary in the light of the belief which he held.
"Accordingly the application to commit Mr Brooke must be dismissed."
But the judge added: "It must be understood, however, that this decision is not a licence for future breaches of the injunction. Two points must be kept firmly in mind. The first is that it is lawful for reasonable force to be used to remove protesters from safety zones.
"The second is that, according to the evidence, when felling resumed after the events of January 22, 2018, the police took a much closer interest in attempts to remove protesters and officers would typically be stationed within a few feet of any removals to ensure that any force used was reasonable. In such circumstances it is most unlikely that any intervention by entering into a safety zone would be reasonable."
At the time of the incident, the use of security guards hired by Amey to help enforce the injunction by removing protesters from safety zones using "reasonable force" had only been in place for around a week.
In a 20-page ruling, the judge said the use of any force by security guards "was - and perhaps still is - highly controversial".
He said prior to Mr Brooke's arrival at the scene, there had been two incidents which he was then told about - one involving a masked female protester being removed in a way Mr Brooke believed to be "unreasonable" and the other involving a security guard punching a tree protester.
The judge said: "A film of this incident (which Mr Brooke did not see at the time) does show that a punch was thrown by one of the security staff. There was no evidence in the hearing before me about the circumstances which led to the punch being thrown and it is unnecessary to make any finding about it. What matters is what Mr Brooke was told."
Justice Males added: "It is clear that this was a day on which feelings were running particularly high, with considerable tension, and with a view on the part of protesters that security staff were using excessive force."
He said it was in this context that Mr Brooke reacted to a third incident as security guards attempted to remove a woman who was clinging to park railings in a bid to remain within the safety zone.
The judge said: "Another female who was in the park outside the zone held her other hand. The security staff attempted to disengage the protester from the railing by rocking her to and fro. As they did so, the woman holding her hand (who would clearly have let go if the protestor had wanted her to) began to chant in a loud voice, “don’t hurt her, don’t hurt her”. There is no reason to suppose that the protester was being hurt at this stage.
"The chanting was calculated to and did inflame the situation. In immediate response to this chanting, another woman some distance away in the park ran up and seized the masked protester’s hand, pulling at it with some force.
"At this, the masked protester cried out in pain and let go her hand. The woman who had been holding her hand accused the security staff in a loud voice of bullying. In fact the reason – and in all probability the only reason – for the masked protester crying out in pain was the fact that her hand had been violently seized by the woman who had run up in response to the chanting. A man was shouting “not revenge, not revenge”, which also had the effect of inflaming the situation.
"The security staff then attempted to escort the masked protester away from the railings, taking hold of her arms. However, she dropped to the floor face down, flopping deliberately as a deadweight in an attempt to prevent her removal. She was pulled under the arms a short distance by the security personnel, before being allowed to lie on the ground. The protester was then turned over onto her back by which time her upper clothing had ridden up to expose her midriff. One of her legs was underneath the other and a security man moved it so that she was lying on her back with her legs together.
"At one point a security man pulled the protestor as she was on the ground by the waistband of her trousers. In my judgment this at any rate was inappropriate, but it only lasted moments. However, the protestor was unharmed and was able to pull down her clothing to cover her midriff. Once the protester was lying on her back and had pulled down her clothing, it is apparent that the security staff realised that they would not be able to remove her from the safety zone. They ceased their attempt to do so and began to move away from her."
The judge said Mr Brooke was some distance away from the incident behind the railings and had "concluded, wrongly, that this was the result of pain inflicted by the security staff attempting to remove her".
"It made him extremely angry and he wanted to stop the security personnel from (as he understood it) hurting the woman further," the judge added. "Accordingly he pushed at the safety zone barriers. As he did so, one of the security staff standing by the barriers (not one of those involved in attempting to remove the female protester) kicked out at his hand. This individual did not give evidence, but it is hard to think of any justification for his action. In the event the barriers gave way to the pressure applied by Mr Brooke and, together with other protesters, he broke through into the now breached safety zone."
The judge said a member of security staff attempted to calm Mr Brooke down, which did have some effect.
"However, he was still angry and upset. He swore at security staff but he made no attempt to proceed further into the safety zone as he could see that the female protester was on her feet and in no difficulty, and that she was being left alone. After swearing further at the security staff around him, Mr Brooke kicked out at the safety barrier which had been knocked over and stood on it, in his own words in evidence “behaving like an idiot”. It is not suggested that he caused it any damage. After a short while he left."
The judge said police officers who were present at the scene had not intervened.
"They appear to have been at some distance from the incident with the masked female protester and, so far as can be judged from the video evidence, do not appear to have been paying close attention to what was happening to her. Moreover Mr Brooke’s evidence, which I accept, was that he had spoken to the police liaison officer three days before this incident, who had said that police officers attending felling sites had been instructed only to observe. Certainly none of the police officers present on January 22 attempted to intervene."
He said in the circumstances "the question whether what he did was reasonable must be determined by reference to the circumstances as he believed them to be, bearing in mind the perceived urgency of the situation and the vulnerability of the female protester as she lay on the ground.
"If, as Mr Brooke thought, she was about to be assaulted, there were only moments in which to act."
Other campaigners, but not Mr Brooke, linked arms around the threatened tree and no further felling took place that day. Felling was paused for several weeks as a result of the incident and when it restarted in late February, dozens of police officers were sent out to support felling operations.
But the approach to felling was put on hold again in March following a national outcry against the use of large numbers of police officers and security guards in supporting operations. A review into how operations are carried out in future remains ongoing.
A Sheffield City Council spokeswoman said today: “We believed the case was worth bringing to court but as with all cases – including the three where defendants were found to be guilty of breaching the injunction – we have always said the outcome is rightly a decision for Mr Justice Males, and not for the council.”