York Magistrates’ Court is an impressive red sandstone edifice in busy Tower Street. Once you’ve trod the eleven wide steps of York stone and passed through a small, high-ceilinged lobby, you reach the main corridor via an airport-style bag-check and frisk. The elaborate ceramic tiling here wouldn’t look out of place in a clean, tastefully-appointed Victorian public convenience. You’re not supposed to photograph it.
Double wooden doors lead into the stately space of Courtroom 2.
Courtroom 2 is a room almost completely devoid of plastic – I swear I can tell this in any room, just by breathing. The high, bright ceiling arches above white-painted cormices. A peeling damp patch looks down, embarassed, from one of the corners. Wood panelling covers the walls to above head height and all the furniture is of the same, warm, serious wood. The layout appears like a rolling valley, with the Magistrate’s seat up to the right, the proceedings on the floor in the centre and the dock, backed by the public gallery, to the left.
For our day, blue sky shone in through high windows and the square-paned skylight. We filed in and climbed, one by one, up the two steep wooden steps of the public gallery. The curved narrow pews took our collective weight with a gentle grunt.
We were here – about two dozen of us – because Heather had had to come back.
Heather had chained herself to he gates at Kirby Misperton, a few days – so it transpired – after the Decision. The Decision, taken within days of New Year’s when it had looked as if nobody was paying attention, had been to let preparation works for ‘unconventional hydrocarbon extraction’ resume.
Heather isn’t a Quaker but she has the straight stance, calm demeanour and neat white hair that I always associate with the Friends. She’d delivered an 80-page binder of evidence, in person, weeks in advance of her previous appearence here but it had only got to the Magistrate the day before. Pointing out that he couldn’t do it justice in that time, he’d deferred the case.
So here we were.
The Prosecution went first. A dark-haired chap from the CPS treated us to larger-than-life footage of Heather being cautioned and arrested, clearly visible on the flat-screen on the far wall. No-one disputed that she’d chained herself to the high metal gates and no longer had the key. I don’t recall anyone disputing that this constituted an obstruction, and therefore an offence.
Heather led her own defence but had civilian help in the form of a McKenzie Friend – an idea I’d never heard of before. It appeared she could pass notes and advice, but not take the stand or say anything.
Heather quoted chapter and verse from laws – English, European and international – which allow for protest, for freedom of expression, and for prevention of a greater harm. This last needs the preventative action (for example, giving a potential burglar a black eye) to be ‘immediate’ (you’re doing it then, to prevent a burglary) and proportionate (you’re not, for example, deliberately killing him.)
She called a Professor of Climate Science for the ‘greater harm’ part, as well as quoting from countries – sadly not ours – who have laws against Ecocide. I began to regret I hadn’t brought my notebook: the detail was impressive.
Everybody agreed that the action was ‘proportionate’ – in fact more of an understatement compared with the magnitude of the impending disaster outlined by the Professor of Climate science and known, at least superficially, by all of us. The ‘immediate’ requirement presented more of a problem. No-one, the Prosecution pointed out, seemed to have proof of when the Decision had been made…
No-one, that was, until one of the members of the public came forward: the Mayor of Malton. He had been at the relevant meeting – or else received its minutes. He was invited to step up into the witness box, swear in, and say so.
There’s a choice now of whether to ‘swear’ (on a New Testament) or ‘affirm’ (on your own, for folk like me). The Mayor and, I noticed in other trials I’ve seen since, the police officers, tend to ‘swear’ while other witnesses ‘affirm’.
The Mayor’s account confirmed the ‘immediacy’ of Heather’s action, which had taken place in early January.
The court rose. The Magistrate retired to a chamber beyond heavy red curtains behind his seat, to consider his verdict.
Over the past several months many Kirby Misperton cases have come through this Court, interwoven with all the more ordinary fare: drunken brawls and other petty crime. I hadn’t known this until Heather’s first appearance and the deferment, but all are heard by the same individual.
We stood up for his return.
He spoke of how impressed he was with the thoroughness of Heather’s defence, of her conscientiousness both in that and in her life in general – the file had included character witness statements.
Heather had to stand up to receive the verdict.
In the absence – yet – of any English law against Ecocide, the verdict had to be Guilty. The sentence was the lightest possible – six months’ conditional discharge.
Later that afternoon, when the Press had photographed us on the steps and Heather had given her interview, we headed for the riverside tables of the Kings Arms. You’ve likely seen it on the News, under water: it’s the pub they always come and film when York has its floods.
The Prosecutor turned up and bought Heather a drink.
I am a writer of fiction: not a journalist. There will be places in this account where I haven’t caught all the details, or have got them wrong – not done justice to the people in that building, that day. This is just a blog post after all: not an affidavit.
But one thing – one abiding impression – stands out above and beyond the legal details.
Our Magistrate never took political sides, never lost patience, never once raised his voice, through an entire day of proceedings.
The contrast with the whining, churlish meanderings of another judge who’s been in the news of late, is stark.