A self-professed ‘privileged, white middle class woman’ who was arrested outside Parliament while protesting about climate change has been spared jail.
Vanessa ‘Nessie’ Stevenson, 60, was among thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists who descended on Parliament Square last September, urging the government to prepare for a ‘climate crisis’.
The protests saw the roads around Parliament Square blocked by protestors who sat in the road and refused to move.
The gardener, who lives in a £900,000 farmhouse in Derbyshire, was later charged with failing to comply with a condition imposed by the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner which restricted the location and size of the protests to Parliament Square gardens.
But Ms Stevenson claimed the order interfered with her human rights – including freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention.
She also claimed she was acting out of necessity, with the aim of the so-called ‘September Rebellion’ protest being to force action on the climate crisis.
Today, Ms Stevenson was given a conditional discharge of 12 months and ordered to pay costs of £362.
Vanessa Stevenson, 60, was among thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists who descended on Parliament Square last September
The gardener, who was later charged with failing to comply with a condition imposed by the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, was today spared jail
Jonathan Bryant, prosecuting, told Westminster Magistrates’ Court: ‘I’m sure you’ve seen in the news the recent protests by Extinction Rebellion but this case relates to an earlier series of protests which took place last September.
‘The focus of these protests was Parliament Square.
‘The protest began on 1 September and Assistant Police Commissioner Rolfe had put in place measures to manage the situation on that day.
‘On that day, the 1 September, from information the police had it was clear that further protests were planned on 2 September.
‘Accordingly, that afternoon, Assistant Commissioner Rolfe put in place further measures for the following day, 2 September.
‘These in effect mirrored conditions that had been put in place previously and the conditions were made under Section 14 of the Public Order Act.
‘The effect of the order was to place restrictions on the location and timings and on the numbers who could take part in the protest.
‘The three conditions were: the protest could only take place on Parliament Square gardens, sometimes referred to as the grassy area of Parliament Square; secondly, the protest could only take place between 8am and 7pm on 2 September; and further the number of protesters in the designated area must be consistent with social distancing.
‘On 2 September, with those conditions in place, the four protestors were in Parliament Square.
‘They weren’t in the designated area and consequently, having been warned by police officers, they were arrested for breaching the conditions of the Section 14 order.
‘For each of the defendants I can see one of the issues raised is human rights.
‘They say that by imposing this order, and requiring them to leave the site, their human rights under the European Convention, in particular the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, have been interfered with.
Jason Helms, 47, received a nine month conditional discharge and was also ordered to pay £362 costs
Mr Balson was given a conditional discharge of 12 months and ordered to pay costs of £362
‘The Crown accepts that these rights were being engaged, but of course what we also say is that those rights are qualified – they’re not absolute rights.
‘They’re not a trump card, so simply for them to say that they were exercising their rights of protest and free assembly doesn’t mean that the law can be disapplied.’
XR vowed to return to the streets after convictions overturned
Last month, Extinction Rebellion vowed to return to the streets as protesters who were found guilty of obstructing roads in Whitehall and Parliament Square had their convictions overturned.
The environmental campaign group has won a slew of victories after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) dropped the cases.
The group said that 2,500 people have been prosecuted since April 2019 and that ‘potentially hundreds if not thousands of the resulting convictions could be unsafe’.
Four more XR activists had their convictions overturned at the Old Bailey last month.
Andrew James, 70, Lou Ferns, 30, and Neil Traynor, 38, were previously found guilty of wilful obstruction of highways in central London.
Charles Hey, 33, was found guilty of unlawful public assembly in Parliament Square, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
But Bill McGivern, for the prosecution, said the Crown would not resist the appeals made by the defendants.
The Supreme Court overturned the convictions of four demonstrators at an arms fare in June after it found they had ‘lawful excuse’ for the offence.
The case has become known as the Ziegler ruling.
Appearing via video-link, Assistant Commissioner Rolfe said she gave due regard to the protestors’ human rights but had to balance these with those of the London community.
AC Rolfe said: ‘Article 10 and Article 11 (right to freedom of assembly ) are really important and I sought to balance those rights with those who might be affected by the protests.
‘In my mind I considered Parliament Square to be a prominent location from which to hold a protest.
‘It is very close to Parliament, it has a significant and large capacity within which a protest will be seen and heard from Parliament and, of course, attract the attention of the media.
‘So I sought to balance that right but also, having consideration for the impact of the previous protests in that area, of which we have vast experience, and the serious disruption that can be caused if those roads around Parliament Square become blocked.
‘On 1 September, for quite a long period, the roads around Parliament Square were blocked by protestors who sat in the road and refused to move.
‘That will have had a significant impact, not just on the numerous buses that move around Parliament Square but also on emergency service vehicles would have had to find alternative routes.’
Ms Stevenson argues that the order was out of proportion and ultimately invalid since AC Rolfe was not present at the scene.
She also claims she was acting out of necessity, the aim of the so-called ‘September Rebellion’ protest being to force action on the climate crisis.
Ms Stevenson has been arrested for similar offences twice before.
In September 2019 she pleaded guilty to Obstruction of the Highway and was given a six month conditional discharge.
A month later Ms Stevenson was fined £200, again for Obstruction of the Highway.
In a statement released on the Extinction Rebellion website, Ms Stevenson, of Ashleyhay, Matlock, Derbyshire, said: ‘I feel as a privileged, white middle class women [sic] who is self employed I can send a message to the government using non-violent direct action where many younger people with jobs to loose [sic] can’t.
‘I sat in the road as I feel disruption is needed to highlight the government’s business as usual attitude to the climate emergency.
‘We all need to wake up if our children are to have a future.
‘I would rather be on our farm hoeing and harvesting vegetables, but there is a huge hole in my heart when I see the destruction of the earth.
‘The government’s job is to keep us safe and provide a future for generations to come, they are not doing that.
‘That is why I sit in the road.’
Ms Stevenson, along with fellow XR protestors John Balson, 62, of Nottingham, Jason Helms, 47, of Sudbury, Suffolk, and Jessica Robinson, 41, of Finchley, north London, all denied but were convicted of failing to comply with a condition imposed by a senior police officer on September 2, 2020.
During the trial, which took place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court (pictured), Ms Stevenson claim the order interfered with her human rights – including freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention
Handing down the verdict, Magistrate Edward McMullan said: ‘What unites the defendants is that they are all concerned passionately about the effects of the climate crisis.
‘They practice what they preach and have all made changes to their lifestyles.
‘The sincerity of these views, the lack of violence and hostility toward police, distinguishes in general these cases that we find in front of the court.
‘The urgency of the climate crisis is not under discussion in this court except that the defence of necessity has been raised.
‘On this point, we cannot find that defence can be sustained in terms of the legal definition.
‘There is no demonstrable direct link between preserving life and your actions.
‘Ms Rolfe’s evidence that she weighed the qualified rights of the protestors before issuing the Section 14 notice.
‘[Ms Rolfe] tolerated the procession and the disruption involved, and therefore we find that her statement that she considered disruption of traffic to be of a different nature, we find that to be credible.
‘Her conclusion that Parliament Green could be populated by the protestors does not seem to be in breach of the protestors’ human rights.
‘All four defendants were very truthful and they said the purpose was to be disruptive on that day, and they generally accept the principle that only through that disruptive action will they bring about any recognition of the urgency of this matter.
‘The order under Section 14 is valid and the human rights of the protestors were properly considered and those rights were not significantly interfered with.
‘The disruption had a significant impact on the local community, with St Thomas’ Hospital nearby and especially with Vauxhall Bridge was at that time closed.
‘The conditions imposed were proportionate and necessary.
‘The protest could be well heard within parliament itself and have an impact without necessary disruption to traffic.
‘For these reasons we find the four defendants guilty of this particular offence.’
Ms Stevenson and Mr Balson were given a conditional discharge of 12 months and ordered to pay costs of £362 each.
Mr Helms and Ms Robinson received a nine month conditional discharge and were also ordered to pay £362 costs.