Environment lawyer fined GBP5k for contempt in Heathrow case
Environmental lawyer Tim Crosland has been fined GBP5,000 for criminal contempt of court after deliberately making public a supreme court ruling related to Heathrow airport before the result was officially announced. The judges could have jailed him for two years.
The supreme court had ruled that a planned third runway at Heathrow was legal. The runway is highly controversial, with opponents arguing that the increased carbon dioxide emissions it would cause are incompatible with the UK’s obligations to fight the climate crisis.
In Monday’s contempt hearing, Crosland argued his deliberate breach was a reasonable measure to prevent harm from climate change, but the judges said there was “no such thing as a justifiable contempt of court”. Before the hearing, Crosland had said: “If fighting for my children’s lives makes me a criminal, then so be it.”
Crosland, from campaign group Plan B, was one of the parties that brought the legal case against Heathrow’s owners and was therefore given the supreme court’s ruling early. But he made it public on Twitter the day before it was due to be released.
The supreme court ruling overturned an earlier judgment by the court of appeal that the government’s approval of the runway was illegal because ministers had failed to take into account the UK’s commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord, which requires keeping the global temperature rise as close to 1.5C (a 2.7F rise) as possible.
In court on Monday, Crosland accused the government of a cover-up of the consequences of a third runway and said the former transport secretary Chris Grayling “knew Heathrow expansion was inconsistent with” the terms of the Paris agreement.
“The attorney general prosecutes me for highlighting the government’s dishonesty and climate hypocrisy in the year of [UN climate summit] Cop26,” he said. “It’s the classic case of retribution against the whistleblower by those attempting to conceal their own guilt.”
The contempt case was brought by the attorney general, Michael Ellis, and was heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. “We are satisfied to the criminal standard that Mr Crosland has committed a criminal contempt of court,” said Lord Lloyd-Jones.
The judges said Crosland has remained unrepentant and that his gesture had been futile because the judgment was made available within 24 hours. They said the fine, which is unlimited in contempt cases, was needed to protect the integrity of the judiciary.
In April, six Extinction Rebellion protesters were cleared of causing criminal damage to Shell’s London headquarters, despite the judge directing jurors that they had no defence in law.
The court of appeal’s Heathrow decision in February 2020 was seen as historic by environmental campaigners, as it was the first significant ruling in the world to be based on the Paris climate agreement. Related cases were subsequently brought against plans to build more roads and gas-fired power plants in the UK.
After the supreme court overturned the court of appeal’s decision on Heathrow, scores of scientists, lawyers and campaigners, including former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King and climate scientist Prof James Hansen wrote a letter of protest to the president of the supreme court.
“We urge you to consider the grave implications of this judgment,” they wrote. “The highest UK court has set a precedent that major national projects can proceed, even where they are inconsistent with maintaining the temperature limit on which our collective survival depends. It substantially reduces humanity’s prospects of maintaining that limit and hence, averting disaster.”
The Climate Change Committee, the government’s official advisers, said in December there should be no airport expansion unless emissions from flights could be reduced to compensate. The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected aviation and some observers have suggested demand for flights will not return to a level that requires a third runway at Heathrow.
PA Media contributed to this report.