Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore is “happy” with and has “positively agreed” to support the authority’s efforts to send four tree campaigners to prison for allegedly breaching a protest injunction, a court has heard.
At the start of a hearing at Sheffield Combined Courts expected to last up to three days, the judge Mr Justice Males briefly adjourned proceedings so lawyers could give him a clear yes/no answer to his questions about whether the legal action against four protesters has the support of Councillor Dore.
The judge told Yaaser Vanderman, the barrister representing the council, that he had read in the newspapers there was currently a moratorium on the controversial programme to fell thousands of trees in the city and replace them with saplings - a policy that has brought daily clashes to some of Sheffield’s leafiest suburbs.
The judge told the court: "This is a serious application. The council is seeking to commit Sheffield citizens to prison for contempt."
He said: "I would like to be reassured that this application is brought on the instructions of democratically elected councillors."
Mr Vanderman initially said that the ultimate decision rested with the council's legal director but as part of the decision "there will have been input from the relevant council members, including the leader".
Mr Males said: "Is this application brought with the instruction of the leader of the council? It seems to me to be an odd thing if I'm being asked to send people to prison unless you can give me a clear yes to that question."
After a break, Mr Vanderman returned to court to tell the judge he has spoken to Steve Eccleston, assistant director of legal services, about the situation.
The barrister said: “Yesterday he [Mr Eccleston] had a meeting with leader of the council Julie Dore and they were briefed about these proceedings.
"At that stage she was happy for proceedings to go ahead.
“He spoke to her just now - she positively agreed that proceedings should be brought."
It comes after Lewis Dagnall, the council cabinet member responsible for environment, told BBC Radio Sheffield last week he was “insulated from the legal process” and had no power to stop the cases being brought to court.
“There’s a separation of powers,” he said. “It’s a very important principle in a legal democracy to have a separation of powers between the different powers of state, between the judicial powers, the legal powers and between elected politicians. Rightly I’ve not been involved in the decision making on that.
“This is a decision from council legal officers based on the evidence based on the principles of the rule of law.”
The council has brought the proceedings against protesters Paul Brooke, Simon Crump, Benoit Benz Compin and Fran Grace, who were all in the courtroom on Tuesday, which was packed with their supporters.
Dozens of people also took part in a protest outside the court in the morning.
The protesters are accused of breaching an injunction obtained by Sheffield City Council last year which prevents protesters entering safety zones set up around trees being felled and also forbids people encouraging or facilitating anyone else to break the injunction, including through social media.
The court was played a series of videos of incidents between December 2017 and March 2018 where the protesters are alleged to have breached injunctions, including on Meersbrook Park Road and Abbeydale Park Rise.
Last year, two other protesters were ordered to pay a combined £27,000 in costs after being found to be in breach of the order.
The controversial tree-felling programme is currently paused following a fresh series of confrontations earlier this year which saw dozens of police deployed and protesters arrested.
The dispute surrounds a 25-year, £2.2 billion private finance initiative agreement the council signed with contractor Amey to improve the city’s roads.
Earlier this year, the council was forced to reveal the contract contains a target to remove 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees following a year-long Freedom of Information battle.
Council leaders have also subsequently said they estimate around 10,000 will be replaced but have admitted there will be a “financial adjustment” should the 17,500 figure not be met.