16/08/2019 00:01 BST

Extinction Rebellion's Day In Court: 'It's An Absurd Waste Of Public Money'

For the next 19 weeks, two courtrooms will be taken up by plea hearings for around 50 to 60 activists every single Friday.

It’s 9am on a humid Friday morning and the entire second floor of the City of London magistrates court has been taken over by members of Extinction Rebellion. But this isn’t another protest.

The climate change activists are among 1,130 people arrested during two weeks of civil disobedience in April, which brought central London to a standstill.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) took the controversial decision to charge those all of those arrested – the majority for suspected breaches of the Public Order Act of 1986. 

And so, for the next 19 weeks, two courtrooms will be taken up by plea hearings for around 50 to 60 climate activists every single Friday.

Extinction Rebellion believe this means all of those arrested in the spring will eventually be charged. And with an estimated three-quarters choosing to plead not guilty, the courts could be clogged up with trials for months to come. 

Peter Summers via Getty Images

Outside courtroom four, around 25 members of the activist group are wilting in the heat of the small waiting room, which has no air conditioning, while others are looking apprehensive. Most have never been arrested before, making this their first experience of the criminal justice system.

Members of the Extinction Rebellion support team mill around introducing themselves. A smiling but assertive court usher calls out for people to check in with her and to tell her how they intend to plead.

She batches people who are entering the same pleas together and begins calling out names. It’s a calm and organised process, a far cry from a few weeks ago, XR support team members say, remembering the chaotic first few Fridays. 

Among the first to be called into the courtroom is 59-year-old psychiatric nurse Tony Corden from Machynlleth in Wales. He has been put together with Dale Hopkiss, a 30-year-old artist from Birmingham, and 77-year-old retiree Frank Bennat from Totnes in Devon.

All of them were arrested on Waterloo Bridge in the first week of the protests. None of them knew each other beforehand.

Corden told HuffPost UK he had decided to plead guilty mainly because of the logistics of having to travel all the way from north Wales.

Despite the hassle, he says he has felt supported by the XR team, but has not had the same encouragement from friends and family members who consider his willingness to get arrested to be “outrageous”.

Many of them don’t care about the environment, he says, and those that do believe the actions of Extinction Rebellion will worsen people’s public opinion of climate change.

He disagrees, saying it has been worth it because “the actions have raised the profile of the looming climate emergency and I think that is incredibly important”. 

Nicola Slawson
Tony Corden outside the City Of London magistrates court on August 9.

During the plea hearing, all three choose to read out statements.

Hopkiss uses the moment to say that he was technically guilty of the crime but likens it to breaking a window to help get people out of a burning building, while Bennat said he believed the reason they were being prosecuted was because of “institutional climate change denial”.

Corden told the court he believes there is a growing sense of frustration and powerlessness over the climate crisis, which he believes is contributing to the rise in people suffering from mental illness. 

“What we did was geared towards preventing harm, not causing harm,” he concludes.

The judge thanks them and praises their eloquence in explaining their actions and sentences them all to to six months conditional discharge – meaning they will not be sentenced unless a further offence is committed. They are also ordered to pay court costs amounting to £115.

Outside the courtroom, Corden says he feels relieved it is over. “I felt the judge did listen to us and it was great he praised us for being eloquent as I’ve heard from others that some are very stony faced.” 

John Valentine from Extinction Rebellion’s legal team tries to get to court every Friday to be on hand to offer support and advice to the accused. 

He says it is an “absurd waste of public money” that the police and Crown Prosecution Service have chosen to go down this route.

“What they have chosen to do is charge 1,100 people for a relatively trivial offence for which most of them will get discharged, albeit conditionally, at great expense to both themselves and the system. The magistrates court system is going to have to defer its conventional business to make room for these charges.

“We say it is absurd and we are thinking very seriously of challenging the decision made by the police and the CPS. There is absolutely no public benefit in this. It’s just ridiculous and should be stopped.” 

Peter Summers via Getty Images
A group of Extinction Rebellion activists arrive at the City of London Magistrates' Court on July 12.

Valentine says the decision will have a cumulative effect because trials are being set until the end of the year. “It’s nonsense, absolutely nonsense,” he says.

Across the hallway, courtroom three is full of activists, family and friends who are choosing to watch other people’s plea hearings to offer their support.

The same court usher pops in and out to ensure the whole thing is running smoothly. She grins widely when someone tells her she is doing a great job.

Next up is mother-of-three Helen Long. The 48-year-old from Walthamstow seems quite emotional as she pleads guilty to the same breach of the Public Order Act as the others, and although she has a statement she doesn’t feel confident enough to read it out. 

The judge decides to read it out on her behalf so it goes into public record. 

In her statement she explains this is her first ever conviction and she was arrested “simply for sitting”. 

She says in the past she signed petitions, wrote to her MP and had been on marches, but she didn’t feel any of her previous acts has made a difference to those in power. 

Referencing the suffragettes, she said she chose to take part in civil disobedience because she felt she had to “act now in order to be on the right side of history”.

The judge thanked Long for choosing to admit her guilt at the earliest possible time.

“The court recognises your heartfelt concern for very real environmental issues. They are genuine and serious concerns but the court has to uphold the law and you recognise that with your guilty plea,” he said.

Outside in the waiting area, Long tells HuffPost UK that going to court is not something she ever wanted to do. Like many others, she chose to plead guilty mainly for practical reasons, and so it “wasn’t hanging over me”.

“I feel really happy that the judge read my statement out because I didn’t feel strong enough to do it myself and I think it’s important.”

“I know that while we were taking part in the protest, people were dying in parts of the world because of crop failures,” she says.

In the hallway between the court rooms Andrew Medhurst is saying goodbye to his teenage daughter, who had come to support him. 

Medhurst is quite a legendary figure in Extinction Rebellion as he gave up his career in the City, where he worked in financial services in order to devote himself full-time to the cause.

Andrew Medhurst, who gave up his job in financial services, outside the City of London magistrates court on August 9.

He will soon be setting up Extinction Rebellion’s finance working group but has also been instrumental in setting up many local groups across London. 

He explains: “I started a career in the City in 1987 and I resigned in January this year from my job, which was working for a pensions company. I suddenly realised the urgency of the situation and it isn’t something I felt I could do for a few hours at the end of the working day or at weekends. This was something I felt I should devote my life to.

“Clearly it was from a position of privilege that I could give up my job and not worry about feeding myself or putting a roof over my head.”

The father-of-two, who is living off savings, says he felt like he wouldn’t be able to look his children in the eye in 10 or 20 years from now if he didn’t act when he realised the urgency of the situation.

He was arrested on Waterloo Bridge on the first night of the protests, and has chosen to plead not guilty, which he chose to do on the advice of lawyers, although he is self-representing. 

During his hearing, a trial date was set for November 8. 

After a busy day of hearings, the court and its waiting rooms began to empty out. But next week, the whole process will begin again. It looks likely that this Friday court takeover by Extinction Rebellion could last until mid November.