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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (13 April 1999)

Why the Crown dropped the charges

[unmodified transcript from an email]

Michael Schwarz, who defended two women accused of pulling up GM crops, explains why the decision not to prosecute may boost activists


Environment - Direct line - Wednesday April 7, 1999
The question is whether last week's decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to drop charges against environmental campaigners who had removed genetically modified crops is a green light to more direct action?
The answer, of course, is yes. The GM maize was part of a test site in an open field in Devon.
It was next to one of the country's largest organic farms, a local and national supplier. When the community found out, it mobilised, employing every form of conventional protest - petitions, letter writing, marches, public meetings.
But the biotechnology company and the Government were not moved. The maize continued to grow.
The organic farmer, backed by the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, took legal action. They challenged the decision to proceed with the tests.
Although the Government accepted that the company had breached the regulations - and has since introduced retrospective laws to rectify the breach - the Court of Appeal did not order, or have the power to order, the destruction of the crop. The maize was about to cross-pollinate.
On the afternoon of August 3 last year, Jacklyn Sheedy and Elizabeth Snook, among others, removed the crop. They were charged with conspiracy to cause #605,000 of criminal damage.
Their defence, in a nutshell, was that they had lawful excuse for their actions. They were protecting the interests and property of others which was in immediate danger, using reasonable and proportionate means. The maize's modified genes were likely to escape from the open field test site carried by wind, by bees and by bacteria in the soil.
Once released, their argument said, this product could not be recalled. It posed a potentially catastrophic threat, not only to the organic farm but also to the wider environment, including animal and human health. The regulatory and democratic system fails to prevent these dangers being realised, so direct action was the only course.
Within 24 hours of receiving 10 reports from defence legal experts establishing every stage of this argument, the DPP discontinued proceedings for "complex" reasons. On analysis, there were three reasons - all of which, from a different point of view, seem to support direct action:
- The cost of a trial was disproportionate to the cost of the damage, now reduced to #44,000.
Message from DPP to activists? Commit under #50,000 worth of damage and plead not guilty.
- The defendants were not the "ring-leaders".
Message to activists? Continue with non-hierarchical structures.
- Since the action, the Government had negotiated with the biotech companies - one of which had recently been convicted of breaching the testing regulations - over the possibility of a voluntary three-year GM moratorium until the unknown threats of GM organisms became more certain.
Message to activists? Where the Government is wrong, tardy and makes deals with law-breakers, the answer is to take direct action.
The real reasons for discontinuance were simpler. GM crops, not the defendants, would have been on trial. The defence evidence was compelling.
The Government could not countenance a jury - a microcosm of society - hearing that evidence and finding GMs guilty. By taking the case away from the jury, the prosecution has set a precedent. And being a decision of the DPP, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, it is a formidable precedent.
It leaves some major questions unanswered, including: Was it the DPP's decision alone? The prosecution have declined to answer this. Why did the decision - by the executive - rely so heavily on government policy?
Michael Schwarz is a partner with Bindman and Partners, who represented Jacklyn Sheedy and Elizabeth Snook.
[end of transcript]
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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (13 April 1999)
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