Criminal Damage to the Law

The acquittal of Greenpeace activists who vandalised a power station reveals a legal loophole vulnerable to political exploitation

Six Greenpeace activists were cleared in September of causing £30,000-worth of criminal damage to a coal-fired power station in Kent. The protestors admitted scaling the chimney and painting part of a slogan on it. So why were they acquitted? And does this mean that the end now justifies the means?

The Criminal Damage Act 1971 states that a person who damages someone else’s property “without lawful excuse” commits an offence. But the Act goes on to say that a person charged with such an offence will be treated as having a lawful excuse “if he destroyed or damaged … the property in question … in order to protect property belonging to himself or another”.

He must also believe that the property was in “immediate need of protection” and that the means of protection were reasonable. It does not matter whether his belief is justified so long as it was honestly held.

You can see the sort of thing Parliament must have had in mind. Imagine you can smell burning next door and you think the house is about to catch fire. Your neighbours are away and you smash a window to get in.

It turns out that the smell was coming from a different house and there was no risk to your neighbours’ property after all. But you still can’t be charged with damaging the window. Same sort of thing with us, said the Greenpeace members. The world is in immediate need of protection from man-made global warming.

By damaging and thereby disabling the power station, we protect the planet from 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a day – which could be responsible for the extinction of 400 species. That, at least, is how it looks from the report in the Guardian.

And, by a majority verdict, the jury seems to have agreed. Those jurors knew nothing about global warming before they came to court, one Greenpeace activist told me afterwards. But they were persuaded by scientists and environmentalists who gave evidence for the defence during the eight-day trial.

That doesn’t prove the Greenpeace thesis, I ventured, pointing out that the prosecution had not called any of the evidence casting doubt on the links between carbon emissions and global warming.

But nobody believes there’s any doubt over that, he scoffed; not even the Government. Readers can make up their own minds on that one. But does the verdict mean that anybody can now commit what would otherwise be criminal damage if they honestly believe they are saving the planet? Fortunately, no. A jury’s verdict is not a precedent in the sense of a ruling binding on other courts. On the other hand, this is not the first time that such a defence has led to an acquittal. So the Government has a simple choice. Either it resigns itself to the fact that jurors will continue to clear defendants whose political views they share. Or it must ask Parliament to reform the Criminal Damage Act.

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