It was a day of two gasps, bracketed by a pair of curve balls.
The trial of Paul Brooke, Benoit Compin, Simon Crump and Fran Grace began with a lengthy preamble about procedural technicalities. Also discussed was the question of whether the testimony of two expert witnesses brought by the defence counted as either expert or relevant. The judge ruled that, for the time being at least, it did not.
But after more than an hour of tedious formalities Mr Justice Males gave his first showstopper. ‘Judges, like everyone else, occasionally read the papers’, he said, noting the present ‘moratorium, for whatever reason’, on tree-felling. Seeking the committal to prison of four Sheffield citizens was a serious matter: did it have the backing of democratically-elected councillors, and not just unelected council officers?
Yaaser Vanderman (acting for Sheffield City Council) seemed a little thrown. He said that the ultimate decision to proceed lay with the council’s legal office, not its leader, though lawyers would have taken into account the views of council members. This was not the decisive response the judge was asking for. Abruptly, he rose and stated that he was not prepared to proceed, ‘until you can give me a clear answer, yes or no.’
This unexpected intermission gave rise to much speculation among the two dozen STAG supporters gathered in the public gallery. Who would take responsibility for the decision to prosecute? Was there indeed a ‘separation of powers’ as recently claimed by Cllr Lewis Dagnall?
Phone calls having been made backstage, the court resumed. Mr Vanderman reported that SCC’s legal officer, Steve Eccleston, had spoken with council leader Julie Dore the previous day, when ‘she was happy for the proceedings to go ahead’. A further conversation had just confirmed that ‘she positively agrees that proceedings should be brought’. So that made clear where the buck stops.
Mr Vanderman then introduced 25 minutes of video evidence. Technical presentation was regrettably lacking in finesse. A first attempt to run the footage from a USB stick resulted in a frozen screen and muffled sound. After much mucking about with laptops, the video clips (stretched to a CinemaScope shape, with consequent optical distortion) were eventually played from CDs. No awards for showmanship here.
The evidence pertained to events on Meersbrook Park Road (MPR) in December and January (four separate occasions), and on Abbeydale Park Rise (APR) in March. It was claimed that the videos showed the defendants inside safety zones around trees and refusing to leave immediately when asked. This, it was stated by Mr Vanderman, put them in breach of the injunction.
Seven witnesses were called to testify in support of the prosecution. Six took the stand today: arborist Jason Wignell, evidence gatherer Jake Webb, security guards Ross Henderson, Ricky Learman and Richard Milligan, and Streets Ahead account director for Amey, Darren Butt. (Council officer Paul Billington will be heard from tomorrow.)
Several of the witnesses were asked to clarify claims made in their statements that one of the defendants, Simon Crump, had remained inside a safety zone for ten minutes when video footage in fact accounted for only three and a half minutes.
Under cross-examination by Paul Powlesland, acting for Simon Crump and Fran Grace, Acorn arb Jason Wignell was asked to define what considerations determined the size of a safety zone. The MPR zone on 18 December was narrower on the park side, where it abutted the railings, than on the highway side. At one point it was extended further on the road side, with the defendants still inside it. The zone was then reduced again after they had left the zone. Why had it been extended, and why had the reasons not been explained to Dr Crump and Ms Grace at the time? Mr Powlesland argued that the extension was done not for safety reasons but to force protesters out of the area.
Owen Greenhall, acting for Paul Brooke and Benoit Compin, related another incident on MPR, when the police had facilitated a protest. Mr Wignell had been in his vehicle, frustrated at being unable to move, and Mr Greenhall said that he had spat water at protesters through his window. Mr Wignell’s response – ‘That’s not true’ – drew a loud intake of breath from the public gallery.
Evidence gatherer Jack Webb disputed Benoit Compin’s claim that he had not known the terms of the injunction before 10 January because he had previously seen Mr Compin at ‘half a dozen’ felling sites; he was recognisable by his French accent and guitar. But Mr Greenhall pointed out that in his affidavit Mr Webb had not said that he had recognised him, only that he had been ‘informed by [his] colleagues’ that the protester was Mr Compin. So how could he recall how many times Mr Compin had attended fellings before or say what he knew about the injunction?
Mr Greenhall pointed out to Mr Wignell and Mr Webb that when Mr Compin entered a safety zone on MPR, for a total of three and a half minutes, another protester was already inside and had already brought work to a halt. The protester was still there when Mr Compin left the zone. Mr Webb was asked: ‘So when you say “As a result of protesters’ actions the tree was not felled that day”, you don’t mean that *Mr Compin* prevented the work.’
There was a long, long pause – around a minute – before the reply: ‘I still believe his actions were the reason why the tree was not felled that day.’
Mr Greenhall played a video clip several times in slow motion, showing what appeared to be an upper cut from a security guard to a protester on MPR. Mr Webb denied that the video clearly showed a punch being thrown. Mr Greenhall also referred to a woman protester being knocked to the ground and dragged across the floor: ‘I put it to you that the force that was used on that protester was not reasonable force.’ Mr Justice Males asked if this was a fair question to put to a witness. Mr Greenhall responded: ‘It’s what he says in his statement – that reasonable force was used.’
Darren Butt asserted that every tree is assessed on its own merits and that the tree on MPR was due to be felled because it had dislodged a kerbstone; installing a thinner kerb would be only a temporary solution as the tree would continue to grow and dislodge the kerbstone again. Mr Greenhall referred Mr Butt to a photo of the kerb: ‘Would you agree that the displacement of the kerb is minor?’ Mr Butt: ‘I accept that the kerb is displaced.’ Mr Greenhall: ‘Would you accept it is minor?’ Mr Butt: ‘I accept it is displaced.’
Mr Butt had personally asked Dr Crump and two other campaigners to leave an incomplete safety zone on MPR. Mr Powlesland asked if anything else in the zone had prevented the felling that day, and noted that a car was parked next to the tree: would the felling have gone ahead with the car still inside the zone? Mr Butt said that parking services would have been called to remove it: ‘We don’t chop trees over cars.’ Another audible gasp from the public gallery led the judge to say that it was unfair to have witnesses’ statements commented on in this way. A security officer in the gallery took up position alongside the front row, presumably ready to eject anyone who breached decorum.
Mr Powlesland showed Mr Butt a video shot from under a tree while it was being felled and asked if Mr Butt considered the work safe. Mr Butt said that he did, having previously investigated the video and been complimented on the work by professional associates. He did not believe the branch being cut was directly over the videographer as it appeared.
Mr Butt said that he was aware that some complaints of unreasonable force had been made against security guards. Several witnesses were asked about what they considered reasonable force; Mr Justice Males noted that they can say ‘what was done and why it was done, but whether it was reasonable is a matter for me’. He referred to a video taken on MPR on 22 January in which a woman was heard to cry out in pain. The judge stated that it was not a security guard who had caused the woman to cry out but an unidentified woman on the park side who had grabbed her hand through the railings. And on that dramatic note, he rose and the court was adjourned.
The trial continues tomorrow and Thursday.
– reporting by Sheldon Hall.