Protesters replicated activist Trudi Warner’s sign in solidarity outside 25 crown courts across the country (Picture: Just Stop Oil on Twitter)

“Jurors have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to their conscience.” Those words on activist Trudi Warner’s sign saw her prosecuted for contempt of court. Warner held the sign outside the Inner London Crown Court earlier this year during the trial of Insulate Britain climate protesters. 

The police are currently investigating 12 other activists for holding similar signs. Warner’s prosecution is part of a worrying crackdown by the state on what climate activists can say and what jurors can hear in court. In several trials, judge Silas Reed barred climate protesters from mentioning the climate crisis or fuel poverty as their primary motivation for taking part in direct action.

When councillor Giovanna Lewis and Amy Pritchard defied this order earlier this year, Reed charged them with contempt of court and sent them to prison for over three weeks. Just before Giovanna went to jail, she told Socialist Worker, “The law isn’t on our side. 

“Judges know that when juries hear the reasons why we cause disruption, they are more likely to vote in our favour.” Giovanna is correct. The concept of an independent jury can pose problems for the ruling class. Since the modern jury was established in the 12th century, juries have sometimes refused to go along with what judges want. 

They can be influenced by movements and pressure from the outside. The justice system doesn’t like this, but anti-racists and climate activists can help to make juries see through the justice system’s failings. Warner’s sign referenced a stand taken by 12 jurors who did just that in 1670.

In August that year, two Quakers, William Penn and William Mead, were charged with unlawful assembly. But against the judge’s wishes the jurors refused to find Penn and Mead guilty. The judge took revenge. He told the jurors they would “not be dismissed until we have a verdict that the court will accept”. 

Edward Bushel, his fellow jurors and the two accused were marched off to jail and denied food and water for two days. Due to an appeal made by Bushel, the judge was forced to rescind his punishment. Courts were barred from punishing jurors who came to verdicts judges disagreed with. 

But ruling classes have always looked for ways to chip away at the tiny opportunities for democracy that ordinary people have. Judges can in some cases override juries if they believe the evidence contradicts their verdict. In Britain most criminal cases never go before a jury. 

The majority of trials are conducted in magistrates’ courts. Who is on the jury, and who controls this process, matters too. All-white juries in the US South were set up to convict black people. And whether the jury makes the right or wrong decision, all justice in capitalist society is ruling class justice. 

From the crimes people are convicted of to the aid available to them, the justice system is set up against working class people. Having money means being able to afford the best legal team, and your status may help the judge hand out a lesser sentence, regardless of guilt. Wider inequalities and backward ideas still exist within the justice system with or without juries.

But it’s true that in the last few years juries have acquitted activists who toppled the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol. And they have also freed some of the Palestine activists who targeted Elbit arms factories. We should defend juries and jurors against the attacks. But winning justice will take an overthrow of the whole system.

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