Reporting and opinion by Mathew Carr
May 26, 2023 — LONDON — Two climate protesters who scaled a major bridge near London could have their sentences and jailtime cut by one third, according to a barrister with knowledge of the situation.
Just Stop (New) Oil activists Morgan Trowland, 40, and Marcus Decker, 34, climbed the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) Bridge in October last year, forcing police to close the Dartford Crossing road below for 40 hours. That’s a public nuisance, a court found.
The road links the M25 — the main circular freeway around the city — between Essex and Kent, and is the only fixed crossing over the River Thames east of London city, so the closure led to serious gridlock.
Trowland was sentenced to three years in prison, in what is reportedly the longest sentence for a peaceful climate protest in British history, according to euronews — Decker was handed two years and seven months:
Handing down the sentence, Judge Shane Collery [spelling corrected from euronews] commented that it was a strict punishment because he wanted to deter copycat actions.
“You have to be punished for the chaos you caused and to deter others from copying you,” he told the activists.
Trowland reportedly had more previous convictions than Decker and the judge understandably didn’t seem convinced that they would not reoffend.
Still, these sentences seem inflated given there was no violence, said a barrister familiar with the Just Stop (New) Oil’s position.
Even though grievous bodily harm carries a maximum sentence of 5 years, common assault will get someone six months at the most, according to sentencing guidelines listed below.
Without appeal, Trowland, for instance, might stay in jail for a year and six months — half his sentence. Should an appeal succeed, the sentence may be cut to about 2 years and jailtime to one year, the barrister said.
A spokesperson for Just Stop (New) Oil said the two men were appealing. She declined to be specific.
Appealing probably does come with its own risks, because the counter argument may win the day:
Pic: Trowland, see the euronews link above for the video of his report from the top of the bridge.
Section 78 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 covering intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance has a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.
There was tremendous disruption because of the Dartford crossing stoppage, including people suffering delays as they sought to get to hospital, care for vulnerable people, arrive at school. Businesses lost profit as productivity dropped.
[BTW there is now the risk of civil action that may include big compensation claims against those who cause public nuisance.]
At the time of the disruption, I spoke with one carer in Kent who was very angry because of the delays suffered. Just Stop (New) Oil’s actions would turn voters away from climate action, the carer said. I spoke to hospital staff in Kent, who were also extremely annoyed and inconvenienced.
Should Trowland end up with 10 years because the government makes its argument in a better way during the appeal, he could languish in jail for 5 years — more than three times his likely jailtime currently. (I’m not a lawyer. Comments my way to email@example.com)
And the newly tweaked offences of public nuisance appear to have wide scope.
See this recent briefing from Doughty Street Chambers — I added emphasis:
Elements of the statutory offence
Section 78 of the PCSCA creates an offence of intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance, where four elements are met:
- A person does an act, or omits to do an act that they are required to do by any enactment or rule of law (s.78(1));
- The person’s act causes or creates a risk of ‘serious harm’ (s. 78(1)(b)(i)). Alternatively, the person’s act obstructs others in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large (s. 78(1)(b)(ii)).
‘Serious harm’ includes for the purposes of section 78 of the PCSCA, any damage to property, personal injury, disease, or death. ‘Serious harm’ further includes serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience, or serious loss of amenity. (s. 78(2));
- The serious harm, risk of serious harm, or the obstruction to others, is to ‘the public or a section of the public’ (s. 78(1)(b)); and
- The person intends their act or omission will have the consequence mentioned, or is reckless as to whether it will have such a consequence (s. 78(1)(c)).
On the other hand, this:
In addition, section 78(3) creates a statutory defence where the person charged with an offence proves that they had a ‘reasonable excuse’ for the relevant ‘act or omission.’
The key prize of appealing would be winning the argument that bad public policy on climate protection is a reasonable excuse to cause nuisance/disruption.
In my opinion, it does not matter that UK climate policy is some of the best in the world. What matters is that British policy still probably amounts to encouraging mass death and harm around the world during the next decades.
It’s probably worth trying to make the argument in court for smaller sentences to win a precedent. It’s clear what behavior is criminal — it’s the lack of policy by British ministers to just stop new oil.
Yet, it is easy for me to say that from the comfort of my home, when extra jailtime away from a life of freedom and away from loved ones is not my immediate alternative scenario. I certainly would not blame the Just Stop (New) Oil supporters if they abandon their appeal bid.
(Corrects judge’s name that euronews misspelt and I didn’t check. Apologies for the confusion)
NOTE From the Sentencing Council — some emphasis added
Assault Sentencing Guidelines
Assault covers a range of actions, from using threatening words to a severe physical attack that leaves the victim permanently disabled.
Offences of assault fall under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
There are three basis types of assault offence:
- common assault
- actual bodily harm (ABH)
- grievous bodily harm (GBH)/ wounding
Common assault is when a person inflicts violence on someone else or makes them think they are going to be attacked. It does not have to involve physical violence. Threatening words or a raised fist is enough for the crime to have been committed provided the victim thinks that they are about to be attacked. Spitting at someone is another example.
Actual bodily harm (ABH) means the assault has caused some hurt or injury to the victim. Physical injury does not need to be serious or permanent but must be more than “trifling” or “transient”, which means it must at least cause minor injuries or pain or discomfort. Psychological harm can also be covered by this offence, but this must be more than just fear or anxiety.
Grievous bodily harm (GBH) means the assault has caused serious physical harm. It does not have to be permanent or dangerous. For example, a broken bone would amount to GBH – in some cases a broken bone might lead to permanent disability but, in others, it might heal without leaving any long-term effects. GBH can also include psychiatric injury or someone passing on an infection, for example through sexual activity.
Wounding requires that the victim’s skin is broken, either on their body or their inner skin (for example, inside their lip) but it does not include the rupture of blood vessels so, if the injury is just bruising, that would not amount to wounding. The injuries involved in a wounding can be less serious than those in GBH.
The GBH or wounding must be caused either with an intent to cause some injury or with knowledge that injury was likely. If it was committed with intent to cause GBH or wounding then the offence is more serious. The maximum sentence for this is life imprisonment.
The offence is also more serious if the victim of the assault is an emergency worker. This covers police, prison officers, custody officers, fire service personnel, search and rescue services and paramedics.
Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.
Sentencing for assault depends on the offence type.
- the maximum sentence is six months’ custody
- if the assault is against an emergency worker, the maximum sentence is one year’s custody
- if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is two years’ custody
Actual bodily harm:
- the maximum sentence is five years’ custody
- if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is seven years’ custody
Grievous bodily harm or wounding:
- the maximum sentence is five years’ custody.
- if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is seven years’ custody
- if the assault was committed with intent to cause GBH/wounding then the maximum sentence is life imprisonment
Find out more about the different types of sentence the courts can impose.
How is the sentence worked out?
Sentences are worked out by assessing harm and culpability.
Harm is an assessment of the damage caused to the victim by the assault. It considers how injured the victim was and whether the assault was sustained or repeated.
Culpability is a measure of how responsible the offender was in the assault. It considers whether the assault was premeditated or motivated by things like the victim’s race, disability, sexual/gender identity.
Factors increasing the severity of the sentence may include:
- use of a weapon
- targeting a vulnerable victim
- the assault was committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- the assault involved an abuse of power or took advantage of a position of trust
Factors decreasing the severity of the sentence may include:
- the assault consisted only of a single blow
- the assault was an isolated incident
- the offender:
- has shown remorse
- is of good character
- has a serious medical condition
- lacks maturity, or has a mental disorder or learning disability
- is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives
If the defendant pleads guilty, they will receive a reduced sentence.
You can find out more about how sentences for assault are decided depending on the offence type. See the sentencing guidelines for:
- Common assault
- Actual bodily harm
- Grievous bodily harm/ wounding
- Grievous bodily harm with intent/ wounding with intent
- Sentencing guidelines for use in magistrates’ courts
- Sentencing guidelines for use in the Crown Court
- Research and resources
- Sentencing Council consultations
- News and articles
- You be the Judge – an interactive guide to sentencing
- Going to court
- Crime, justice and the law on GOV.UK
- Sources of legal advice
Do sentences reflect the seriousness of crimes?
There is always a clear logic to how sentences are decided, but media reports of some cases can focus on a few key elements rather than all the facts of a case so it can be unclear why an offender got a particular sentence.
Judges and magistrates weigh up all the facts, how blameworthy the offender is and the level of harm they have caused, particularly to the victim, and use sentencing guidelines to reach a proportionate sentence. They look at aspects of the case that make the offence more serious, and any factors that reduce its seriousness. The judge must also consider other factors such as whether the offender pleaded guilty – which normally means a reduction in sentence – or whether they spent time in prison while awaiting trial and sentencing. This time is deducted from the overall sentence.