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Prison sentences handed to two Just Stop Oil protesters after they scaled a bridge on the Dartford Crossing were the “longest” given for a peaceful protest case in modern times, the Court of Appeal has been told.
Morgan Trowland, 40, and Marcus Decker, 34, were jailed after they used ropes and other climbing equipment to scale the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, causing gridlock when police closed it to traffic last October.
At a hearing in London on Wednesday, the protesters’ lawyers made a bid to challenge the “extraordinary length” of Trowland’s three-year sentence and Decker’s jail term of two years and seven months.
The extent of the deterrent element of the offence was unduly severe, unreasonable, and otherwise likely to have a ‘chilling effect’ on all protest rather than this type of protest
Daniel Friedman KC, for the activists
Daniel Friedman KC, representing the activists, said in written arguments their jail terms were “the longest ever handed down in a case of non-violent protest in this country in modern times”.
The protesters face a wait to discover the outcome of their appeal bid after judges said they will give their written decision at a later date.
A trial at Basildon Crown Court was previously told the bridge was shut from 4am on October 17 until 9pm the next day, sparking traffic jams as motorists were forced to use tunnels instead.
In April, a jury unanimously found Trowland and Decker guilty of causing a public nuisance.
Just Stop Oil previously said sentencing Judge Shane Collery KC was “trying to set a precedent” and “deter people”.
The environmental campaign group said Decker, a German citizen who it said has leave to remain in the UK, faces deportation after serving his sentence.
On Wednesday, Mr Friedman said the protesters have spent nine months locked up, having been in custody since their arrest last October.
The barrister said this amounts to the “longest sentence ever served in living memory” for someone convicted over a “peaceful protest”.
He described their “manifestly excessive” sentences as “the longest by a very long way for deliberate obstruction of the highway or infrastructure”.
Mr Friedman said “particular caution” was needed over sentencing, including in the context of “non-violent acts of civil disobedience, even when seriously disruptive of others”.
In written arguments, Mr Friedman said the sentencing judge handed down jail terms that were a “disproportionate interference” with the activists’ rights to free speech and protest.
He said: “The extent of the deterrent element of the offence was unduly severe, unreasonable, and otherwise likely to have a ‘chilling effect’ on all protest rather than this type of protest.”
Mr Friedman also said the sentencing judge was “unduly harsh” in his approach to the two protesters’ previous convictions and “prospect of rehabilitation”.
Trowland has six previous convictions relating to protests, while Decker has one, with lawyers for the pair previously saying they would not take part in further disruptive protest.
Tom Little KC, for the Crown Prosecution Service, opposed the two men’s appeal bids, saying “there will be cases in which it is necessary to deter people from offending and further law-breaking”.
We are aware of both the potential urgency of the matter and its importance
Lady Justice Carr
He said the sentencing judge was not wrong in his approach and placed the case “in a high level of seriousness”, noting its impact, duration and planning.
Mr Little said there was a “proper basis to impose a sentence which reflected a marked element of deterrent but which would not have a chilling effect on those conducting lawful protests across the country”.
In a reference to other protest incidents, Mr Little said the court could note “the fact that Just Stop Oil protests have not been stopped in the middle of the road as a result of this or in the middle of Lords, or Wimbledon, or the Crucible, or wherever”.
Structural engineer Trowland, of Islington, north London, and private tutor Decker, of no fixed address, denied causing a public nuisance, arguing it was a protest.
Their trial was told the protesters ascended to a point close to 200ft above the road and unfurled a “giant Just Stop Oil banner” and “rigged up hammocks and stayed there”.
The men came down at about 5.30pm on October 18 “with the help of police and a very tall cherry picker crane” but the bridge, which links the M25 in Essex and Kent, was not reopened to traffic until later.
Essex Police said those affected by the disruption included a “heavily pregnant woman who needed urgent medical help”.
Another person missed the funeral of their best friend of 35 years, the force said, and a business lost more than £160,000 in earnings.
Trowland, wearing a yellow shirt, joined Wednesday’s hearing via video-link, sat alongside Decker, who wore a white T-shirt bearing the image of a red beetle.
Ahead of proceedings, a crowd of singing and placard-waving supporters gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London to demand the pair’s release.
Lady Justice Carr, sitting with Mrs Justice Cutts and Mrs Justice Thornton, said they need to “reflect carefully” before giving their ruling in writing.
“We are aware of both the potential urgency of the matter and its importance,” Lady Justice Carr said.