THE actions of protesters campaigning against a tree felling programme in Sheffield were today described in court as “an affront to the rule of law.”
Eight people appeared in the High Court in Leeds this morning over a hearing in which Sheffield City Council are seeking interim injunctions to be granted against them.
The legal action is as a result of continued protests against tree felling as part of the council’s Streets Ahead contract with Amey.
The council says campaigners are protesting inside safety barriers ‘unlawfully’ and as a result holding up work - which is costing the taxpayer money.
But some people are determined to stand up for their beliefs.
The council’s barrister David Fosdick, QC, told the court: “The defendants appear to think that their actions are lawful, peaceful protests. They are simply wrong.
“The right to protest does not extend to stopping a public authority from doing what it is lawfully entitled to do.”
“It is a contradiction in terms for people to take it into their own hands to stop the will of a democratically elected authority.”
“There simply is not any right to be there at all.
“You can protest on the pavement as much as you like and we will facilitate that.
“But you are not entitled to trespass within the safety zones.
Mr Fosdick described the actions of the group as “an affront to the rule of law in a democracy.”
He added: “All democratic legal avenues have been exhausted.
“The council has made up it’s mind lawfully and democratically and we are here because it will not be forced to change its mind by the unlawful actions of the few.
“Nothing less than an injunction will do.”
The barrister said there had been no example in the courts, either in this country or abroad, including the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights, facilitating similar conduct by protest groups.
The eight defendants include Green Party councillor for Nether Edge and Sharrow Alison Teal, along with Alice Fairhall, Calvin Payne, Dave Dilner, Robin Ridley, Graham Turnbull, Paul Brooke and Simon Crump.
If the campaigners are served with injunctions and break them they will be in contempt of court, and could face fines or even prison.
Judge Andrew Saffman rejected an application by John Cooper, QC, the barrister representing seven defendants, to adjourn the hearing.
Mr Cooper argued that the defendants had not had enough time to prepare their case because of delays in being provided with legal documents.
Judge Saffman said he did not consider the delay to prejudice the defendants’ case and said it was in the interest of justice to deal with the case today.
The hearing continues.
A council spokesman said before the hearing: “Court action is a last resort for the council following months of pointing out to the individuals involved the critical difference between peaceful protest – standing close to a work site but outside the safety barrier – and unlawful trespass, whereby an individual stands inside the barrier and brings work to a standstill.
“A handful of people are therefore causing major disruption and delays to the £2 billion programme which is upgrading roads, paths, street lights and replacing street trees across the city.
“The council’s survey of 350 streets and regular feedback confirms that the majority of Sheffield residents welcome the work and want it completed. Furthermore, if the delays continue then the taxpayers of Sheffield face a potential multi-million pound penalty on the highways contract due to works not being completed on time.”
The authority hopes to replace 6,000 of the city’s 36,000 street trees by the end of the year, while planting an extra 600.
It says those 6,000 are either dead, dying, diseased or dangerous, or causing damage to the highway.
But those opposed to the felling say it is a cost-cutting exercise and engineering solutions could be found to keep healthy trees. Campaigners are crowdfunding to cover their legal costs. A demonstration was held yesterday under an elm in Chelsea Road due to be felled.