Ex-vicar who took part in Extinction Rebellion road blockades is fined

Retired vicar, 79, who took part in Extinction Rebellion road blockades in Parliament Square and outside MoD site near Bristol is fined more than £1,500

  • Sue Parfitt, 79, sat in a camping chair in Filton for four-and-a-half hours last year 
  • She also blocked road during protest in London’s Parliament Square last August
  • The climate activist has now been fined a total bill of  £1,550 for both protests
  • It follows Supreme Court ruling that four defendants did have right to block road

A retired vicar who took part in two Extinction Rebellion road blockades in Parliament Square and outside the Ministry of Defence (MoD) site near Bristol has been fined more than £1,500.

Reverend Sue Parfitt, 79, sat in a camping chair in front of MoD Abbey Wood in Filton, Gloucestershire, for four-and-a-half hours on December 11 last year.

The climate activist also blocked the road during a protest in London’s Parliament Square last August.

She tried to persuade a judge at Bristol Magistrates’ Court that her actions were lawful under human rights legislation, claiming she was highlighting the impending extinction of the entire human race.

Parfitt, from Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, broke down in court several times and implored District Judge Lynne Matthews to ‘make a statement’ about ‘the horror of climate change and what’s going to happen’ by finding her ‘not guilty’. 

In a case which could have wider implications for the rights to protest in Britain, Parfitt was found guilty of obstructing the highway – having stopped ‘dozens’ of MoD workers from going to work – and fined a total of £1,550 for both blockades.

It follows last week’s Supreme Court ruling which quashed the convictions of four people who had been arrested for blocking a road leading to London’s ExCel centre, where a huge arms and defence fair was taking place in 2017. 

Reverend Sue Parfitt, 79, pictured sat in a camping chair in front of Ministry of Defence (MoD) Abbey Wood in Filton, Gloucestershire, during a protest on December 11 last year

The court heard that Parfitt was one of around 20 climate change protesters who blockaded three entrances to the Abbey Wood complex. 

MoD security allowed protests to continue at two entrances, but demonstrators at the main entrance off the retail park roundabout were stopping deliveries and people getting to work.

Parfitt sat in a camping chair alongside a friend, Gaie Delap, on the entrance side of the road with other protesters on the opposite side.

They arrived at around 6.15am that morning and were arrested at approximately 10.45am after they refused all police appeals to move.

The retired vicar, who represented herself in court, claimed her actions only partially blocked the road. She said people walking or cycling could get past and Extinction Rebellion protest organisers allowed some vehicles to go through, before police blocked the entrance completely to protect the safety of those sitting there.

District Judge Matthews said in her ruling that she agreed with the police’s actions and not with Parfitt’s claim that the road was only partially blocked.

The judge said it ‘would have been madness’ if the police had allowed motorists and lorry drivers to try to squeeze past the two sitting women.

Three police officers and the MoD’s head of security were all called to give evidence by the prosecution during the morning of the one-day trial to confirm that the road had been blocked.

In the afternoon, Parfitt laid out her defence that her actions were permitted under Sections 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights – that it was her right to protest in that way.

She also said that, since her Christian faith compelled her to act on behalf of others, it was her right to religious freedom to highlight the climate crisis.

With an alternative defence, Parfitt added that she had the right to try to prevent the further ‘evil’ of the continuing climate crisis, and that justified her protest.

Parfitt told the court: ‘Nothing can describe the horror that some people are facing in this world as a result of climate change.

Police officers pictured speaking to Parfitt during last year’s protest in Gloucestershire. The court heard that Parfitt was one of around 20 climate change protesters who blockaded three entrances to the Abbey Wood complex

Retired vicar Parfitt sat in a camping chair (pictured above) alongside a friend, Gaie Delap, on the entrance side of the road with other protesters on the opposite side

‘On December 11, I was trying to prevent further untold harm before it is absolutely too late.’

The protest took place just after the Government announced a £24billion funding boost for the Ministry of Defence – twice what it was allocating to be spent tackling the climate crisis.

And it came on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Paris Climate Accord, at which the UK Government agreed to do everything it could to limit global warming to just 1.5C.

Parfitt also said the action was specifically targeted at the Ministry of Defence as it is one of the Government’s major contributors to carbon emissions, but has been left out of Government carbon emission statistics and targets. 

District Judge Matthews said that she agreed the highway is a shared space and not just for motor vehicles, and therefore blocking it as a form of protest can be legitimate.

But in a detailed judgment, she said on balance that Parfitt’s human rights to protest ‘did not trump the rights of others’ to go to work unhindered.

The court heard that normally, pre-Covid, there would have been as many as 9,000 people whose route to work at MoD Abbey Wood was blocked.

Parfitt (pictured above, in February 2020) was found guilty of obstructing the highway – having stopped ‘dozens’ of MoD workers from going to work

On that day, during the December restrictions, only between 150 and 200 people were actually required in the office, plus contractors, builders and deliveries.

In her judgment, District Judge Matthews said her role wasn’t to pass judgment on the severity of the climate crisis.

She said: ‘Courts are strict arbiters of the law, therefore I do not adjudicate on anything else. I express no view on climate change.’

District Judge Matthews added she had read and digested the most recent Supreme Court ruling on what has become known as the Ziegler case, after one of the four protesters eventually cleared last week of blocking the road outside the ExCel Centre, but said there were key differences with Parfitt’s case.

One was the difference between what was ‘effectively a market of arms’ event at the ExCel Centre, and the Ministry of Defence’s Abbey Wood headquarters, and the fact that the people disrupted and blocked in Bristol were just trying to go to work. 

She did accept that the MoD offices were ‘a legitimate target for Extinction Rebellion’, but said that blocking the road was dealt with fairly by the police that morning. 

Parfitt was found guilty of obstruction of the highway. She was fined £250 and ordered to pay £500.

She was also sentenced for a similar offence last August in which she blocked the road during an Extinction Rebellion protest in Parliament Square, London.

That case was moved from London to Bristol after one hearing in the capital where Parfitt glued her hand to the desk in the court in protest at her conviction.

It follows last week’s Supreme Court (file photo, above) ruling which quashed the convictions of four people who had been arrested for blocking a road leading to London’s ExCel centre, where a huge arms and defence fair was taking place in 2017

She was again fined £250 with £500 costs for the August offence, plus a £50 surcharge, making her total bill across both cases £1,550.

Parfitt said she was compelled by her Christian faith to continue to protest to raise awareness of the climate emergency ‘until my body is no longer strong enough’, and indicated she intended to appeal against the conviction.

After the case, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion said: ‘This case should also be seen in the context of the recent Supreme Court ruling that blocking roads can be a lawful way to demonstrate, and that there should be a degree of tolerance to disruption caused by the right to protest when the action is over ‘very important issues’.

‘Sue Parfitt’s protest outside the entrance of the MoD, representing one morning’s obstruction and small inconvenience, has to be set alongside continuing government inaction, 365 days a year, that is contributing to the further destruction of the planet.’ 

Last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that four defendants did have a right to protest by blocking a road, with a majority decision that was hailed as an affirmation of the right to protest with the kind of disruption caused by blocking roads.

In that majority ruling, Lord Hamblen and Lord Stephens said: ‘There should be a certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life, including disruption of traffic, caused by the exercise of the right to freedom of expression or freedom of peaceful assembly.’

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