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Uncivil Verdict Favours Monsanto

Appeal judges over-rule right to full trial for injuncted activists

Squall Download 2, Dec-1999/Jan-2000, pg. 12.

Three high court appeal judges have ruled in favour of Monsanto’s legal attempt to prevent a full civil trial of anti-GM food activists in a verdict delivered on Nov 25.

The Genetix Snowball campaigners had been granted the right to a full trial by the High Court, after arguing that uprooting genetically-modified crops is justified in the public interest. Monsanto, who have obtained a permanent injunction against the activists, were keen to prevent the case from going to a full civil trial in order to avoid adverse media coverage.

The biotech corporation had originally sought a permanent injunction against five female activists from anti-GM food campaign, Genetix Snowball, after they uprooted genetic crops at Model Farm near Watlington in Oxfordshire in July 1998. Genetix Snowball’s press officer, Andrew Wood, was joined to the action as a sixth defendant at a later date, despite taking no part in uprooting GM crops.

In April 1999, Justice Klevan ruled the defendants had the right to have their case fully argued and that their defence of justification in the public interest should be heard in a full civil court trial. However, the three appeal court judges - Justices Pill, Mummery and Stuart-Smith - overuled Justice Klevan’s decision, maintaining that the defence of justification in civil law is only available in circumstances of “emergency” in the event of “serious danger” and that GM crop trials were not “an immediate and serious danger” to the general public.

The Genetix Snowball activists had argued that they had a right to full trial under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the right to a fair trial) and that, had the case been a criminal proceeding, they would have had an arguable defence of “lawful justice”.

Kathryn Tulip, a trained solicitor and one of the Genetix Snowball defendants said: “The court failed to take into account Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In effect they have maintained that our rights under the civil law are not equivalent to those under criminal law. We hope to change that.”

In a fictional case with remarkable similarities, a character from the Radio 4 soap, ‘The Archers’, was ruled to have been justified in uprooting genetic crops next to his organic farm in a much hyped series of episodes broadcast in mid-November. Tommy Archer’s fictional trial was criminal rather than civil, where the legal argument of “lawful excuse” had real life court precedence. The script writers had interviewed anti-GM activists and examined the case of the Ploughshare activists who, in 1996, were deemed by Liverpool Crown Court to have been justified in damaging a hawk fighter aircraft bound for Indonesia. The denial of a right for a full trial to the real life anti-GM activists means that the legal issues have only received a fictional airing.

The latest Appeal Court ruling will be watched keenly by the Crown Prosecution Service, who pulled out of a criminal prosecution against two GM food activists in a separate case earlier this year. It was widely acknowledged that the Government ordered the case to be dropped after realising that a jury might reflect the British public’s rejection of GM food and acquit the activists; so setting a legal precedent of justification for direct action against genetically modified crops. The six defendants are now taking the case to the House of Lords and say they will proceed to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

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