Two priests were acquitted on Friday of blocking a train in an Extinction Rebellion (XR) stunt after telling jurors the protest was motivated by faith, prompting calls for urgent legal reform.
The Rev Sue Parfitt, 79, and Fr Martin Newell, 54, were among three defendants found not guilty of obstructing the railway after bringing Shadwell station in east London to a standstill in 2019.
It is the latest in a series of trials involving activists that have ended with juries clearing them of all charges, despite the defendants making no effort to deny their actions.
Most recently, a group of protesters dubbed the “Colston four” were acquitted last week of criminal damage for toppling a statue of Edward Colston, the slave trader, in Bristol in 2020.
Friday’s verdict at Inner London Crown Court came after Ms Parfitt, of Bristol, and Mr Newell, of Birmingham, told the court their religion had inspired them to act.
The pair used a ladder to climb on to the roof of a Docklands Light Railway (DLR) train as the third defendant, Philip Kingston, 85, super-glued himself to the side of the carriage, disrupting rush hour trains for 77 minutes.
Rev Sue Parfitt and Fr Martin Newell seen during their protest atop a DLR train in 2019
Credit: Jeremy Selwyn / Evening Standard
Mr Newell, a Roman Catholic priest belonging to the Passionist order, said his “deepest motivation” was his Christian faith, while Ms Parfitt, a retired Anglican vicar who is still licenced by the Diocese of Bristol, told the court: “I did it because I feel truly called by God to do all that I can to avert the catastrophe that’s on its way to his whole creation.”
The outcome was described on Friday night as “perverse” and led to furious calls for the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, to review the law.
Sir Mike Penning, a former justice and policing minister, told The Telegraph it would be “absolutely right” for legislation to be revisited – and if Ms Braverman was not successful, then the public would expect Parliament to address the anomalies.
Ms Braverman is considering asking the Court of Appeal to review the Colston Four case amid fears that the case could set a legal precedent for violent demonstrations that cause criminal damage.
Sir Mike said the latest acquittal made the need for a review of the law all the more critical.
He insisted such a process was not about overturning a jury’s decision, but instead clarifying the law.
“The [Attorney General] is absolutely right to look at the law where it allows the defence to come up with completely perverse arguments,” said Sir Mike.
“This is another example. The judiciary needs to look at the law in the light of the court of public opinion and if necessary to then amend it in parliament. If she is not successful, I think the public will expect Parliament to address these anomalies.”
John Hayes, the former security minister, urged the Government to look at the law that allowed people to plead not guilty even though they did not deny the offence, describing them as “not only extremists but also hypocrites”.
He added: “You cannot overturn a ‘not guilty’ verdict, but you can make it very difficult for people who have plainly done wrong to simultaneously plead not guilty. They never said they did not do it.”
Huw Merriman, chairman of the Commons’ transport select committee, recently warned of the potential impact protest action could have on delivering major infrastructure projects.
He told The Telegraph of the latest verdict: “It calls into question whether judicial guidance needs urgently revisiting to ensure juries are directed that unlawful behaviour cannot be excused by campaigning causes.”
There are also fears among MPs that the case risks emboldening others to commit crimes.
Brendan Clarke-Smith, a Tory backbencher, told MailOnline: “This outrageous decision has given the green light to people looking to commit all manner of appalling crimes in the name of religion to justify their extreme political ideologies."
Mike Schwarz, solicitor at the law firm Hodge Jones and Allen which represented the defendants, said the case provided “mounting evidence” that the public shared XR’s concerns about the climate.
The Church of England (CofE) was also facing questions over why Ms Parfitt had been allowed to continue holding a licence to lead services despite her history of arrests at political protests.
‘Moral confusion and weakness’
Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former Chaplain to the Queen who converted to Catholicism in 2019 over frustrations with the Church of England’s approach to the “culture wars”, said: “The descent into political activism is really problematic, because the moment you take up a political cause, you make reconciliation with people very difficult – clergy are meant to be approachable and accessible by everybody.
“I think the church authorities ought to say, we have licensed you to have pastoral viability, but you’ve destroyed it by your political activism.”
It is understood the Bishop of Bristol has tried to be supportive of Ms Parfitt’s activism, despite previous convictions for protests linked to both XR and Insulate Britain.
Dr Ashenden said: “What [some may describe as] patience and long-suffering by the Diocese of Bristol is moral confusion and moral weakness.”
His views were echoed by the Rev Will Pearson-Gee, the rector of Buckingham Parish Church, who defied CofE guidance by continuing to enter his church during lockdown.
He said: “I do not support their actions. I think it brings the gospel into disrepute.
“I’m sure that many Christians fully support them, indeed, the Bishop of Bristol, I hear, fully supports them – but it hasn’t done the gospel any good.”
‘Sue acted in good conscience’
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rev Vivienne Faull, said: “I understand that the Rev Sue Parfitt, who has Permission to Officiate in the Diocese of Bristol, has been acquitted.
“Sue has been in regular contact with me as she is obliged to under the Clergy Discipline Measure. Her well-being remains of paramount concern to me.
“There is a long history of protest, including civil disobedience, within the Church. This will always be controversial and there will always be a wide range of opinions and emotions involved.
“I know that Sue has acted in good conscience throughout. I share with her the conviction that the world is facing a climate and ecological crisis and that we are not yet moving fast enough to tackle it.”
In a separate hearing on Friday, an XR-supporting former Paralympic athlete lost an appeal against his conviction, as Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice, said the right to a peaceful protest did not mean he could cause “as much harm as possible”.
James Brown, of Exeter, Devon, succeeded in getting his 12-month jail term cut to four months by appeal judges.
It came as members of Insulate Britain were released from prison on Friday.
Ecologist Emma Smart (right) and retired GP Dr Diana Warner outside HMP Bronzefield, in Surrey, following their release from the prison where Emma undertook a 26-day hunger strike during her incarceration
Credit: Aaron Chown/PA
Emma Smart, an ecologist, and Diana Warner, a retired GP, were freed from HMP Bronzefield in Surrey shortly after 9.40am.
The pair, who were jailed along with eight other campaigners last year for breaking a government injunction, were hugged by friends and supporters outside the prison. People cheered as they left the site, with Ms Smart punching the air.