Two tree campaigners have been given suspended prison sentences after being found in contempt of court for breaching an injunction banning ‘direct action’ protests against controversial tree-felling work in Sheffield, a judge has ruled this afternoon.
Following a three-day hearing at the High Court in Sheffield, Mr Justice Males ruled cases against university lecturer Simon Crump, retired schoolteacher Fran Grace and French song-writing magician Benoit Compin had been proved. Crump and Compin were found to have breached the injunction on two occasions and Grace once.
Crump and Compin were both handed sentences of two months in prison, suspended for 12 months. The judge ruled no further action needed to be taken against Grace due to her involvement being down to an 'isolated incident'.
The judge said he would be reserving judgement in relation to the case against a fourth campaigner, Paul Brooke. After that case has concluded, the costs the campaigner are liable for will be decided.
The injunction, which the council won last summer in the wake of growing protests against the removal of thousands of street trees in the city and their replacement with saplings, prevents protesters entering safety zones set up around trees being felled and also forbids people encouraging or facilitating anyone else to break the injunction, including through social media.
The first of the five incidents in question occurred on December 18 and involved Simon Crump and Fran Grace.
The court was shown videos of Crump and Grace being asked to leave a “safety zone” around a tree made up of metal fencing by workers.
Barrister Paul Powlesland, representing Crump and Grace, told the court his clients believed that workers had unnecessarily expanded the area covered by the barriers from their original dimensions in order “to force them from the area and remove them from protesting.”
Mr Powlesland said the pair had stayed in the area as part of the ongoing efforts to "pursue effective but lawful protest" to try and stop the felling of trees
"They felt they were not in breach of the injunction and it was not a bona fide working area. They were trying to protect trees they love."
Justice Males said he believed the argument that the zone had been deliberately expanded to include the two campaigners was groundless, and a sign of 'paranoia and distrust' towards the council's felling programme.
The second incident on January 10, 2018 involved Benoit Compin.
A video was played of Compin being asked to leave a safety zone made up of plastic barriers as he attempted to read out a poem.
Owen Greenhall, representing Compin, told the court on Tuesday it was his client’s case that he had not been aware of the injunction prior to the incident on January 10.
He said it was accepted that his client was in the safety zone for around three-and-half minutes, during which time another protester was also inside the barriers who had entered before Compin’s arrival and remained there after he left.
The third incident involved Simon Crump on January 16.
Videos played the court showed Crump and two other protesters standing arm-in-arm while he held on to park railings close to a threatened tree in an attempt to prevent a safety zone being completed by the final barriers being joined together. Crump is seen on the video saying: “It is not a safety zone. We are not in a safety zone, it is not complete.” The two other protesters were eventually persuaded to leave their position, leaving Crump standing by the railings on his own. A further video showed him leaving the area.
Mr Powlesland said Crump had not delayed any work from taking place as a car that was parked underneath the tree had yet to be removed.
He also argued that workers could have put up the barriers around Mr Crump, allowing work to go ahead.
"Simon Crump was holding the fence and work could have carried on. He was not preventing the erection of a safety zone," he says.
But Darren Butt, account director for council contractor Amey, told the court he did believe Crump had prevented work from taking place. He said a truck was on its way to remove the vehicle and while the tree could not have been fully felled, preparatory work could have taken place had Crump not been by the tree.
The fourth incident - and the only one on which a ruling is yet to be made - occurred on January 22 involved Paul Brooke.
A video played to court showed a protester with their face covered being removed from a safety zone by a number of security guards as they attempted to cling on to park railings and another person on the other side of the railings tried to hold on to their arms.
Moments after the masked protester started screaming, other people were seen on the video pushing at another metal barrier, which fell over.
Brooke was seen on the video swearing and kicking a barrier. A group of people then surrounded a threatened tree, forming a human chain around it.
Yaaser Vanderman, the barrister representing the council, said Mr Brooke was one of the ‘main protagonists’ in the campaign against the felling of trees and had signed an undertaking not to breach the injunction last year.
He said: "The felling of this tree on Meersbrook Park Road is part of a process found to be lawful by two High Court judges.
"Several masked protesters frustrated the tree felling that day.
"The female, who he knows but refused to name, was sought to be removed. Paul Brooke entered the safety zone in what we say was an aggressive and violent manner.
"As a result of his actions, tree felling was suspended for a number of weeks and resumed again in February."
But Owen Grenhall, representing Brooke, said his client had gone into the zone because he was concerned about the wellbeing of the woman being removed.
“He had a genuine belief the female protester was under attack,” he said.
Mr Greenhall said the court had played video footage from that day “which clearly shows what looks like a member of security staff punching someone”.
He said while his client hadn’t witnessed the incident, ‘he had been told that security staff had been assaulting people in simple terms”.
Mr Justice Males said he wanted more time to consider his verdict in this case.
The final incident again involved Benoit Compin and happened on March 5 on Abbeydale Park Rise.
Compin was seen on a video climbing a threatened tree and shouting at workers attempting to persuade him to come down and leave the safety zone.
He is seen on the video saying: “I’m here on behalf of the people. I serve the people so f*** off. I’m a public servant. You are all criminals.”
It followed an incident moments earlier where he had become involved in a confrontation with security guards who had been in the process of removing a female campaigner from inside the metal fencing.
Mr Vanderman said Compin had been inside the safety zone for at least 50 minutes.
"During that time, he attempted to prevent the removal of another protester, he then shouted profanities before climbing onto the tree,” he said,
"Just before climbing onto the tree there is no dispute he says 'I'm going to break the injunction again'. It is our submission he said this because he knew he had already broken the injunction on January 10 and was doing so again.
"It was a brazen admission of defiance. He then refused to come down for some time despite requests by the police."
Following the judge’s decision, Yaaser Vanderman, representing the council, said Compin had put a post on social media on Monday reading ‘My defence for tomorrow’, which showed a photo of him in a safety zone sticking two fingers up to the security operatives.
Mr Vanderman said: “We say that goes towards defiance of the injunction and suggests he will do it again.”
The court has been adjourned ahead of hearing mitigation for the three campaigners who have had a case proven against them.
Following the case,
Gillian Duckworth, legal director at Sheffield Council, welcomed the rulings.
She said: “The High Court has determined that three individuals have chosen to break the law by ignoring a lawful order put in place by the court. It is regrettable that by undertaking these actions, the individuals concerned have endangered not only their own safety, but also the safety of workers and the general public.
“The decision to break the law was one made by those individuals in full knowledge of the potential outcome. The penalty imposed upon them is therefore rightly a decision for Mr Justice Males, and not for the Council.”