Conscientious objection and acquittal for alleged criminal damage

And here’s something we should have reported earlier…

On 26 October, the Revd Daniel Woodhouse, a Methodist Minister, and Sam Walton, who works with the Quakers in Britain, were found not guilty at Burnley Magistrates’ Court of criminal damage. Armed with a hammer, they had attempted to reach aircraft that were bound for Saudi Arabia when they were apprehended at BAE Warton in January 2017.

S.1 (Destroying or damaging property) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 states that:

“(1) A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.

(2) A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property, whether belonging to himself or another—

(a) intending to destroy or damage any property or being reckless as to whether any property would be destroyed or damaged; and

(b) intending by the destruction or damage to endanger the life of another or being reckless as to whether the life of another would be thereby endangered;

shall be guilty of an offence.”

S.5 (“Without lawful excuse”) provides a limited defence:

“(2) A person charged with an offence to which this section applies, shall, whether or not he would be treated for the purposes of this Act as having a lawful excuse apart from this subsection, be treated for those purposes as having a lawful excuse—

(a) if at the time of the act or acts alleged to constitute the offence he believed that the person or persons whom he believed to be entitled to consent to the destruction of or damage to the property in question had so consented, or would have so consented to it if he or they had known of the destruction or damage and its circumstances; or

(b) if he destroyed or damaged or threatened to destroy or damage the property in question or, in the case of a charge of an offence under section 3 above, intended to use or cause or permit the use of something to destroy or damage it, in order to protect property belonging to himself or another or a right or interest in property which was or which he believed to be vested in himself or another, and at the time of the act or acts alleged to constitute the offence he believed—

(i) that the property, right or interest was in immediate need of protection; and

(ii) that the means of protection adopted or proposed to be adopted were or would be reasonable having regard to all the circumstances.

(3) For the purposes of this section it is immaterial whether a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held.

(4) For the purposes of subsection (2) above a right or interest in property includes any right or privilege in or over land, whether created by grant, licence or otherwise.

(5) This section shall not be construed as casting doubt on any defence recognised by law as a defence to criminal charges.”

According to the Joint Public Issues Team of the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the URC, commenting on his judgment District Judge James Clarke said this:

“They were impressive and eloquent men who held strong views about what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve. They impressed me as being natural in their delivery and honest throughout their evidence … I heard about their belief of BAE’s role in the supply of aircraft to Saudi Arabia. I heard about their beliefs regarding the events in Yemen, that they include the death of civilians and the destruction of civilian property, and the basis for their belief that this amounted to war crimes … However, having considered in full the defence under section 5 Criminal Damage Act 1971, I find the defendants not guilty.”

Magistrates’ courts are not courts of record and exactly what the two were acquitted of is unclear: did they cause actual damage or were they apprehended by BAE security before they could do so? But the inference to be drawn from DJ Clarke’s reported remarks is that the honesty of their belief that what they proposed to do would protect “property belonging to … another” triggered the protection of s.5(2)(b).

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Conscientious objection and acquittal for alleged criminal damage" in Law & Religion UK, 15 November 2017, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2017/11/15/conscientious-objection-and-acquittal-for-alleged-criminal-damage/

1 thought on “Conscientious objection and acquittal for alleged criminal damage

  1. Thanks for another fascinating post, Frank. I note that this case has turned out quite differently from that of another pacifist cleric, prosecuted under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, the case of Blake v D.P.P. [1993] The Times January 19, (QBD). I must admit that the facts were somewhat different there. It also didn’t work out well for Margaret Jones and colleagues in R v Jones (Margaret) [2007] 1 AC (HL(E).

    (That said, in 1996 a jury did acquit three women members of the peace group Swords to Ploughshares of criminal damage to a British-Aerospace Hawk jet.)

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