Reverend Sue Parfitt sat in her camping chair outside the main gates of a Ministry of Defence site in Bristol. She was in the middle of the road, blocking access to the complex.
It was a cold, winter’s morning and for this reason the pensioner decided not to lock-on to her fellow climate change protesters helping to create the blockade in front of MOD Abbey Wood. She needed to stay mobile so she wouldn’t freeze.
The then 78-year-old and a small group of Extinction Rebellion demonstrators refused to move from the site for four hours. Seven vehicles – carrying food supplies and maintenance equipment – were unable to gain access during this time.
The demonstration, held on the eve of the Paris Climate Accord’s fifth anniversary, was to highlight that the military is a “major contributor” to carbon emissions, despite being excluded from government emissions targets, Parfitt said. And it took place following a £2.4 billion funding boost for the department – twice the amount the government had allocated to combat the climate crisis.
Parfitt was arrested for her actions that day, on 11 December 2020. She was later convicted in June last year of blocking a highway without legal excuse and ordered to pay a fine of £1,500.
But following a one-day hearing at Bristol Crown Court on Thursday, her conviction was quashed. Recorder Robin Sellers concluded that Parfitt was lawfully expressing her freedom of expression rights, which outweighed the level of disruption she caused during the demonstration.
Friends of Parfitt, now 80 years old, cheered and applauded from the public gallery as the verdict was read. But the reverend – a seasoned activist who is no stranger to prosecutions – kept her cool. “Well, that was worth it,” she remarked as she moved slowly towards the exit.
Outside the courtroom, she told the Cable the judge’s decision was “vindication”. Asked what’s next for her, she said she would remain committed to direct-action protesting to raise awareness of the climate crisis, and to risking arrest, “because there’s no time to do it any other way”.
‘Children have no future unless we turn this crisis around’
Parfitt gave evidence during the one-day trial. “I’m afraid I’m totally committed to this,” Parfitt told the court during cross-examination, referring to her repeated involvement in direct-action. “I believe it’s what God is asking of me.”
“I don’t have children, but I imagine many in this courtroom do,” she said. “And I have to say, children born now have no future unless we turn this [climate] crisis around.”
Quoting David King, head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, Parfitt warned that the “irreversible tipping point” is between three and four years away. “It’s my absolute duty as a Christian to protect the planet.”
Parfitt, a retired family therapist, admitted that the demonstration caused some disruption. “I apologise to them of course… I didn’t want to disrupt their day. However, somehow we needed to try to get across to everybody… the gravity of the situation we are facing.”
“If you remember back to the beginning of Covid-19 there were scenes in supermarkets of people fighting over toilet rolls. That is going to be nothing when you are fighting over food, water and fuel and all the basic qualities of life.”
‘Protest was peaceful, limited and targeted‘
David Rhodes, defending the pensioner, told the court that the protest was “peaceful, limited and targeted”. He said the disruption the demonstrators caused was minimal, and that they only prevented deliveries of goods to the site “for a short period of time”.
He said pedestrians and cyclists were allowed through the blockade, as were vehicles displaying disabled badges, adding that the seven vehicles that were unable to enter had been carrying food or maintenance equipment.
“People may have missed their bacon sandwich, but they didn’t miss lunch,” he said, referring to the contents of the lorries that Parfitt obstructed. “Is it necessary to arrest her to allow the delivery of those sandwiches?”
The date of the protest was symbolic, he told the court. It came on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Accord, at which the UK Government and others agreed to limit global warming to 1.5C.
And the demonstration took place after a £2.4 billion funding boost for the Ministry of Defence was announced, which was twice the amount the government had allocated to combat the climate crisis. The military is a major contributor to carbon emissions, the court heard, but it is excluded from carbon emissions targets.
‘Reverend was exercising her freedom of expression right’
Rhodes argued that Parfitt, from Westbury-on-Trym, had a lawful excuse for her actions on that day given the precedent set by a landmark Supreme Court ruling that said blocking a road leading to an arms fair wasn’t unlawful. This judgement ruled that the exercising of protest rights could constitute a “lawful excuse” for obstructing the highway, even if the protest is considered disruptive.
Quashing Parfitt’s conviction on Thursday, and citing the Supreme Court ruling, Recorder Sellers said the priest’s involvement in the demonstration was “reasonable”, and agreed with the defence that it was important to show “a degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings”.
“In this case, limited to its own facts, we find that [Parfitt] was exercising her Article 10 right of freedom of expression and this must be balanced against the level of disruption that is established on the evidence,” he added.
Parfitt’s solicitor, Mike Schwarz, said: “This successful appeal, overturning a district judge’s verdict in the magistrates’ court, underlines the point that the right to protest, particularly on public roads, must be taken seriously.”
He added that the right to protest “means nothing” if it is not rigorously applied by the courts, “at all levels and at every stage of the criminal justice system.”
Parfitt had already begun to pay a fine and costs she incurred following last June’s conviction. The money will now be returned to her, the court heard.
The Ministry of Defence protest was just one of a number of protests Parfitt has been involved in, and arrested over. In January this year, she was cleared by a jury for her part in obstructing a London railway line in October 2019.
“I just find it incredibly inspiring,” said Eve Sharples, who was among the protesters who gathered outside Bristol Crown Court to show support for Parfitt on Thursday, holding a banner that read: ‘lower your weapons, lower your emissions’.
“The fact that an 80-year-old is willing to be arrested for these things just shows how serious and scary this situation is. And we’re already seeing gradually more court wins – protesters not going to jail. More and more people are realising that we’re fighting for everyone, and it’s not an us against them kind of thing.”
Eve’s father, Richard Sharples, who is also a priest in Bristol, said: “As people of faith, we don’t have the option of despairing. We believe in a God of hope and we have to keep hoping, praying and acting. And addressing climate change… that’s the direction we have to be heading in.”
Dave Mitchell, a friend of Parfitt, told the Cable: “There’s not enough time to tackle the climate catastrophe with democratic means. This is something that [Parfitt] recognises, and I support her in that. Direct action and disruption in this way, she believes, is the only way to get people to understand the urgency of the crisis.”
Speaking after Thursday’s verdict Parfitt said she planned to celebrate her victory with “a nice glass of prosecco”, before her attention turns to preparations for the next direct-action protest she’s set to be involved in.
Parfitt did not reveal what the demonstration would involve, or where it would be. But, asked if she was worried about the possibility of future prosecutions, she said she expects to at some point serve time in jail for “one thing or another”.