In 2019 I was at the Greenbelt Festival near Kettering, a small festival that focusses on faith, arts, music and activism. I was drawn to a session featuring the case of the Stansted 15 at which the speaker was fellow Solicitor, Melanie Strickland. I have to say that I became more and more angry as she spoke.
The story began as a familiar account of peaceful action. In March 2017 a controversial flight was due to leave Stansted to deport a group of people to destinations in West Africa. The protestors broke into the airport. They blocked the plane and effectively prevented its departure. They locked themselves together using tripods and builders foam. They were subsequently charged with aggravated trespass, a relatively minor offence often used in similar cases. Things then became dramatically more serious a few months later when the charges were changed to ‘endangering safety at an aerodrome’ under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. This changed everything. That offence carried a maximum sentence of life in prison. It is used in the fight against terrorism.
This seemed a massively disproportionate charge. In 2018 they were convicted but avoided prison. But they still faced the stigma of a serious conviction. They knew they were breaking the law. They expected some consequence as the price to pay. But there was never a moment when any lives were in danger. Melanie Strickland was at risk of losing her legal career –
You can see a video of her talk here (it is quite long but worth the watch) –
The video cuts off before Q and A and so you don’t see me standing and saying that as a lawyer of nearly 40 years, I was embarrassed that our beleaguered criminal justice system had found the resources to waste on such an extreme prosecution!
After nearly four years of having this hanging over them the Stansted 15 had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal last week –
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett commented –
“Taking the Crown’s case at its highest, and considering all relevant potential consequences, it could not be established to the criminal standard that the actions of the appellants created disruption to the services of Stansted airport which was likely to endanger its safe operation or the safety of persons there.”
The Court of Appeal found that they should not have been prosecuted under these provisions and that there was no case to answer. The appeal judges ruled that there was no justification for the use of an offence ‘which aims at conduct of a different nature’.
It is good news that the Stansted 15 have justice, although this is a prosecution that should never have been brought in the first place.