High court blow for GM protesters

Press Association
Tuesday November 4, 2003

The high court today ordered four GM crop protesters to be convicted of criminal offences after shackling themselves to tractors during a demonstration.

In a successful appeal, the director of public prosecutions won orders overturning a district judge's decision to accept the protesters' defence that they were protecting the environment.

In a ruling which will come as a blow to the anti-GM movement, Lord Justice Brooke and Mr Justice Silber said: "In our judgment, the district judge ought to have directed himself as a matter of law that the defence of private defence or protective force was not available to the [four] respondents".

The four were protesting against an experimental trial involving genetically modified maize on farmland in Dorset.

Elizabeth Snook, from Totnes, Devon; Olaf Bayer, of Oxford; Richard Whistance, from Catcott, Somerset; and William Hart, from Matlock, Derbyshire, were acquitted of aggravated trespass by Judge Roger House, sitting at Sherborne magistrates' court in March this year.

Snook, 26, representing herself, told the court that GM crops posed a "serious threat" to the eco-system.

The four were prosecuted for leading a protest against a trial of pesticide-resistant GM maize known as strain T-25, which was being planted at the Horselynch plantation in Littlemore, near Weymouth, Dorset, on May 16 last year.

As well as building a large wooden pink castle by the site entrance, the four disrupted the start of the trial by strapping and locking themselves to tractors which were preparing to sow the GM seeds.

At one point during the magistrates' court hearing, Snook, who had been convicted of similar acts of protest in the past, broke down in tears.

She said: "All I wanted to do was to stop the planting of that field. We did what we did as a last resort."

After two days of evidence, the district judge said the four had acted in a "reasonable" way, adding: "I can see you all have huge knowledge of GM crops and I can see you were acting to protect the land and animals."

However today Lord Justice Brooke and Mr Justice Silber handed down a judgment at the high court in London, saying the district judge had erred in law.

They said the district judge "moved directly to considering their subjective beliefs and fears without considering the ingredients of the defence.

"The case must therefore be remitted to him with a direction to convict, since all ingredients of the offence were established and no defence of lawful excuse is available to the defendants."

The defendants argued in court they were not guilty of aggravated trespass because they were acting "for the defence of property".

They contended GM crops "could cause damage to surrounding property by pollen distribution, animal transfer and soil transfer" and they were obliged to take action because a proper regulatory system was not in place.

Rejecting their defence, the judges said: "This case again highlights the difficulties which face the lower courts and those who appear in those courts because we do not have a readily intelligible criminal code in this country."

It was a principle of common law that "a person may use a proportionate degree of force to defend himself, or others, from attack or the threat of imminent attack, or to defend his property or the property of others in the same circumstances."

However, an ingredient of that common law right of defence was that it could only be used against an act, either experienced or feared, if it was an unlawful or criminal act.

The GM trials were being conducted lawfully. The judges said: "This is not a topic the district judge addressed at all."