End of the line for two Just Stop Oil protesters as courts uphold draconian anti-protest laws

Close-up of Marcus Decker on top of Dartford Crossing during a Just Stop Oil protest
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The Court of Appeal has refused two Just Stop Oil protesters a chance to challenge their sentences. They were handed what their lawyers called “extraordinary” three-year sentences for stopping traffic on the Dartford Crossing. And the court’s refusal to allow an appeal has raised serious concerns over protest laws.

What’s the difference between deterrence and chilling effect?

On 12 October, the Court of Appeal told Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker that it would not permit the pair to challenge their existing sentences at the Supreme Court. Decker and Trowland had stopped traffic on the Dartford Crossing for roughly 37 hours in October 2022. They had scaled the bridge’s mast to protest the UK’s approval of new oil and gas licences and were protesting under the Just Stop Oil banner.

Basildon Crown Court found the pair guilty of public nuisance on 4 April 2023. By that point, they’d already spent five months on remand. The court then gave them custodial sentences, with Trowland receiving three years and Decker receiving two years and seven months. Just Stop Oil described the sentencing as “draconian”, while their lawyers said they were “extraordinary” in length.

Trowland and Decker’s first attempt to appeal the sentencing was rejected in July. Appeal judges said at the time that the penalties went “well beyond previous sentences” for similar actions, but that the terms reflected “Parliament’s will” as outlined by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act.

Carr reinforced this position on 12 October. Trowland and Decker had attempted to take their appeal to the Supreme Court. However, the Court of Appeal denied this, with Carr stating:

the sentences meet the legitimate sentencing aim of deterrence for such offending in current time

However, she then claimed that:

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The sentences should not be seen as having a “chilling effect” on the right to peaceful protest or to assembly more generally; deterrence and “chilling effect” are not the same.

Tightening the screws on dissent

The PCSC Act trod a controversial path to parliament, including giving rise to the Kill the Bill movement. The government brought it in to give police greater powers against protests, but it was widely criticised by researchers, civil rights groups and protest groups as draconian and authoritarian.

One of its clauses legislated a new crime of ‘public nuisance’. However, the Act ambiguously worded what constituted a nuisance. The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) said in its summary of the bill that:

It is not yet clear what any of the terms covered by the new public nuisance offence will mean for protesters.

However, it is public nuisance legislation that the courts used to convict and sentence Trowland and Decker. So we now have one example of what the offence means for protest – and how the courts will use it to defend the state and capitalism.

On the same day that the Court of Appeal rejected the Dartford Crossing pair’s plea, the Guardian published How criminalisation is being used to silence climate activists across the world. It doesn’t mention Trowland and Decker, but its timing is notable. It quoted David Armiak, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, saying the UK’s PCSC Act was:

part of a last-ditch, industry-backed effort to protect its profit model in the face of public demands to turn to renewables and divest from fossil fuels as the climate emergency intensifies

That legislation was bolstered less than a year later by the Public Order Act, an equally authoritarian anti-protest law.

Despite what Carr said, it’s clear that the PCSC Act’s intention was exactly to have a ‘chilling effect’. And the decision to refuse Trowland and Decker’s appeal is meant to double down on this capital-led, state-enforced hostility. Sadly, their sentences may be a sign of things to come.

Featured image via Just Stop Oil/YouTube

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