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Four convicted, five acquitted in UK Uncut Fortnum & Mason protest trial
01.11.2012


Four protesters arrested following a protest inside luxury goods store Fortnum & Mason have had convictions of aggravated trespass with intent to intimidate upheld, while another five have been acquitted, following an appeal hearing at Southwark Crown Court lasting eight days.

The trial was one of three which saw a total of 30 protesters charged following the occupation of Fortnum & Mason in London's Piccadilly on 26 March 2011, at the same time as a march organised by the Trades Union Congress saw hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against the coalition government's austerity programme.

The protest was organised by UK Uncut, a group that sprang to prominence in late 2010 following a series of pickets and occupations of shops known to participate in tax avoidance schemes, and banks accused of causing the ongoing financial crisis.

The protesters whose hearing finished today were part of a larger group of 17, which was split into two groups – known as Trial B and Trial C – on the basis of the alphabetical order of the defendants' surnames.

Although all the defendants in Trials B and C were arrested in the same circumstances and faced the same legal argument from the prosecution, the outcomes of the cases differed. All of the defendants in Trial C were acquitted, while all those in Trial B were found guilty, which led to the appeal.

With today's judgment, only four of the 17 defendants from Trials B and C have been found guilty. If they had different surnames, falling into the latter half of the alphabet, they would have been part of Trial C and therefore acquitted in March this year.

The verdict led to mixed reactions from the protesters and their defence team. Raj Chada, barrister for one of those whose conviction was upheld, said: “I'm delighted for the defendants acquitted but remain concerned about restraints for future legitimate protest. The prosecutors need to consider whether bringing these prosecutions was in the public interest when there have been just 4 convicted out of 17 tried.”

“I'm happy for myself but annoyed for the others,” said one of those acquitted. “The judge made an artificial division between us,” something one of those convicted described as “arbitrary”.

Delivering a judgement that lasted nearly an hour, Judge Beddoe provided individual reasoning for each of the appellants, with those convicted distinguished from those acquitted on the grounds that they had prior knowledge that the protest was likely to intimidate staff and customers in the shop, and that they participated in activity within Fortnum & Mason that either was intimidating or encouraged others to behave in such a manner.

Witness testimony was used by the prosecution to support its arguments that the protest caused “chaos” in the store, but the majority of evidence directly concerning individuals was marshalled from CCTV inside and outside Fortnum & Mason, as well as footage extracted by the police from arrestees' mobile phones or downloaded from the internet.

Three of the protesters whose convictions were upheld were sentenced with a 12 month conditional discharge each and costs (additional to those from the first case) of £815.

A fourth was also ordered to pay costs of £815, but instead of a conditional discharge has been given a fine of £500, with the judge seeing it “proper to distinguish him” from the others on the grounds that was seen as having played a central role in the occupation of Fortnum & Mason, and also has a previous conviction for aggravated trespass.

The offence of aggravated trespass was introduced by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, with the maximum sentence being a prison sentence of three months and a fine not exceeding £2,500. [1]

Ben Newton, barrister for eight of the defendants, said that the judge delivered a “very, very cleverly crafted judgement,” while Raj Chada commented that “the prosecution needs to consider whether bringing these prosecutions was in the public interest where there have been just four of 17 convicted.”

The hearing began over a week ago, and saw the prosecution, led by David Malone, accuse the appellants of taking part in “an attack, a surprise attack” on Fortnum & Mason, a luxury goods store, which was occupied for around two and a half hours in March 2011 in a protest against a £10 million tax avoidance scheme run by the shop's owners. Malone went on to accuse the protesters of attempting to “overawe, cow, and subdue customers and staff in the shop,” with situation frequently described as "chaotic". [2]

Several days into the hearing, following statements made by Malone, the judge felt it necessary to remind the court that “protest is not a crime”.

The journalist, Polly Toynbee, and the Labour MP, John McDonnell, both came to give witness statements in defence of UK Uncut, describing its protests as creative and good-natured.

In his judgment, however, Judge Beddoe stated he and the two magistrates assisting him considered that the Fortnum & Mason protest was "different in kind and manner of execution" to previous demonstrations, and that they "struggled to find anything creative about it."

There was shouting, said Judge Beddoe,the protesters "bore banners and placards" - some deemed to be "quite witty" -  and there was chanting of "varying quality and nature," but of "considerable" volume and "accompanied by stamping of feet."

Those convicted will be left with criminal records and significant costs to pay, for participating in actions that were ultimately aimed at highlighting something – large-scale tax avoidance – which many would argue is far more damaging to society than non-violent protest.

As Raj Chada noted after the verdict was delivered: “UK Uncut have put tax avoidance on the political agenda with their innovative protests.”

BACKGROUND: An “irrational and vindictive” prosecution

The nine whose appeal ended today were arrested as part of a group of 145, all of whom were initially charged with aggravated trespass with intent to intimidate before the charges against all but 30 of the group were dropped.

Those 30 were then tried in three separate trials – A, B, and C. The appeal of those found guilty in Trial A will be heard before the High Court, but no date has yet been set.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police were last year accused of “irrational and vindictive” [3] behaviour in their pursuit of prosecutions, with questions raised over the police operation leading up to the arrests and the grounds for the decision to prosecute 30 individuals out of the 145 arrested.

Video footage from the protest shows a senior police officer, chief inspector Clare Clark, telling the protesters inside the shop that they were “sensible” and that after leaving the building the police would let them “get away to the tube station”. [4]

Instead, as the group left the building en masse with their arms linked, they were kettled while officers attempted to pull them apart from one another, a struggle which ended with the protesters arrested and placed in police vans or coaches hired for the occasion, before being driven off to a variety of police stations in and around London.

Some four months after the original protest, charges against the majority of those arrested were dropped, with the CPS and police subsequently pursuing cases against those deemed to be organisers or “ringleaders”, accusations made on “sometimes bizarre grounds”. [5]

Some really important intelligence opportunities”

Suspicion over the real reasons for the arrests was for many confirmed by a statement made by Assistant Commissioner for the Metropolian Police, Lynne Owens, when she spoke to a House of Commons Committee examining the policing of the protests on 26 March.

She told the Committee that “the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities.” [6]

Those who eventually faced trial did so because they were found to have 20 or more of the same leaflet on them when arrested, with the CPS arguing that “we have identified 30 defendants whose actions, the evidence shows, were more culpable than the others, such as where there is evidence that they organised the action, or where defendants have relevant previous convictions.” [7]

Raj Chada said last year that “the Crown has treated this as a 'tick box' exercise rather than a proper evidential evaluation of organisational involvement.” [8]

The date for the High Court appeal of those found guilty in Trial A in November last year has not yet been announced.


Sources
[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1994/33/section/68

[2] http://www.statewatch.org/news/2012/oct/08uk-fortnum-and-mason.htm
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jul/24/uk-uncut-fortnum-mason-police

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/28/cuts-protest-uk-uncut-fortnum
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jul/24/uk-uncut-fortnum-mason-police
[6] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmhaff/uc917-i/uc91701.htm
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
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