Judge overturns tough sentences for climate activists

Judge overturns tough sentences for climate activists
Image: Violet Coco (left) with Greens MP and environmental lawyer Sue Higginson (Centre). Photo by Rigmor Berg


A judge has overturned harsh sentences given to two climate change protesters who blocked a lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Deanna “Violet” Coco was sentenced to 15 months in prison with a non-parole period of eight months and fined $2500 by Magistrate Alison Hawkins in December 2022. Today, District Court Judge Mark Williams overturned the fine and placed her on a 12 months conditional release order with psychological counselling for the Sydney Harbour offence. For two other minor offences, Coco was convicted but no other penalty was imposed.

Firefighter Alan Glover was sentenced last week to an 18 month community corrections order with a $3,000 fine. Today, Judge Williams set aside the Magistrate’s penalty, recorded no conviction against him and placed him on a 12 months conditional release order.

The judge described the strict curfews imposed on Coco between her arrest in April and sentencing in December as “quasi custody”.

The two activists joined supporters and the media outside the court afterwards. They both expressed relief but told journalists that they will continue to take action until serious efforts, including no more coal and gas, are made to tackle the climate emergency. Coco is rebuilding houses destroyed by floods in Lismore. Glover, a firefighter with 40 years experience, said he was hoping that he could rejoin his brigade in the NSW Rural Fire Service, who stood him down when he was charged. Asked whether he would continue his climate activism, he said, “I will be an activist until I die.”

Alan Glover: Photo: Facebook.

The protest took place last April when Coco and fellow Fireproof Australia activist Glover climbed onto the roof of a small truck parked in the southbound Cahill Expressway lane of the bridge during peak hour. They held a flare in the air and live-streamed their protest, which lasted about 28 minutes.

Today the Crown Prosecutor Isabella Maxwell-Williams maintained a hard line against both accused throughout the hearing, but her assertions were repeatedly questioned or repudiated by Judge Williams.

The court relied on evidence from a 45 second video arguing that at least three lanes of traffic were delayed. Judge Mark Williams disagreed and asked to see the video again. He then said, “It appears like a normal morning”. He observed that the traffic was moving in both north and south directions.

When the prosecutor said that police couldn’t move the truck because two other protesters had glued their hands to the road, the Judge observed that the keys were left in the truck and the police could have backed it out of the way.

The prosecutor submitted that the incident had caused “massive inconvenience” and there were no extenuating circumstances to rationalise the disruption or any emergency in the city on that day to justify it.

She described the incident as “not peaceful [but] an overt and deliberate disruption of the peace” in Sydney that morning. The judge asked her to point out where there was any violence. He later said the protest was not violent.

The prosecutor went further and contrasted the protest to rallies and marches that take place after “protesters and police confer to make sure there won’t be any disruption.”  Her remarks reflect an underlying strategy behind the anti-protests laws which is that the right to protest should be restricted to explicitly authorised protests. This rules out civil disobedience altogether.

The defence case was that the Fireproof Australia protest was motivated by a  sincere belief that there was a climate emergency and this justified peaceful civil disobedience to which the lower court magistrates had reacted with disproportionate punishment.

Police must be held to account for false allegations, lawyer tells court

Coco was jailed under the harsh new protest laws that allow for up to 2 years imprisonment and $20,000 fine.  Her lawyer Michael Blair told that judge that Magistrate Hawkins’ sentence was given on a “false factual basis” after an untrue set of police facts claimed an ambulance under lights and sirens was prevented from attending an emergency due to the incident.

But that claim has since been retracted and the judge found that he was sentencing Coco on facts that were significantly different from those presented by police to the Local court magistrate. Judge Williams asked how the false allegation found its way into the matter.

“That’s something the police will have to answer,” Coco’s lawyer Michael Blair said.

Later, outside the court, Coco’s other lawyer Eddie Lloyd read a section of the original statement of facts to the media: “Violet and her co-accused conduct prevented an ambulance responding to an emergency under lights and sirens as it was unable to navigate through the increased heavy traffic.”  She then said, “..As the judge commented today that was a false assertion by the police, it was a false fact…The NSW have got a lot of questions that they need to answer. “

Outside the court, Glover told journalists that he was very surprised to read about the ambulance because Fireproof Australia has a specific policy that if there is any sort of blue and yellow light flashing, protesters will immediately move out of the way. ” We had agreed to get do that. It turns out it is a falsehood. What we in the public would call a lie.”

It is not yet clear how the police will be held accountable. When asked to comment outside the court,  Coco said that she is considering civil action to “hold he police to account for their lies.” In a civil case, evidence of who made up the false facts, and how and why they concocted them, could be investigated.  Magistrate Hawkins’ sentencing remarks provide evidence that the ambulance featured prominently in her considerations about the impact of the protest and her decision to refuse bail. This exposed Coco to extremely tough prison conditions in which she was in isolation for 12 days. This and the more than 95 days on bail spent in what Judge Williams described as a form of ‘quasi custody’ would provide evidence for a damages claim.

Michael Blair, Violet Coco and Eddie Lloyd after the judge’s decision.

Judge accepts that protesters were sincerely motivated by climate concerns

Glover’s lawyer Felicity Graham argued that her client had an exemplary record including 40 years of voluntary firefighting service. He wanted to continue living a “pro-social life” but was at “dire risk” of not being reinstated as a firefighter if the court imposed a conviction. Although she accepted that he was otherwise a ‘good character’, the prosecutor argued that rather than diminish Glover’s culpability, his training as a  firefighter and his maturity should have led him not to engage in “dangerous protest”.

The prosecutor read out the details of Coco’s previous four convictions, all of which have resulted from peaceful protests. Judge Williams said that he had read the record and it didn’t need to be read out in court.  Coco’s lawyer Michael Blair argued that said Coco’s  history was being “blown out of proportion” and there could be no doubt she was motivated by genuine beliefs about climate change.

Judge Williams rejected the Crown’s submission that Coco was a “danger to the community” and had “no insight into her offending”. Instead, in delivering his sentence, he accepted that both protesters were “engaged in protest which was motivated by sincere beliefs about climate change.”

Outside the court, Glover explained that his “sincere beliefs” about the need to act in response to climate change have not changed. He said that  the government must stop subsidising fossil fuel companies and keep fossil fuels in the ground while taking action to mitigate the terrible impacts of climate change. For thirty years, he has been “signing letters, marching, signing petitions and doing everything possible but the climate emergency is real, it is happening now… There is lot of talk but not enough action.” Driven by the bushfires of 2019/20,  he felt he must do more. He is not encouraging people to take the same action but believes the public “should be warned that more and more of those [protests] will be happening….No I won’t be locking up the Harbour Bridge but I do think that my one action has helped me to get the message out.”

Coco said that while “the last eleven months have been incredibly challenging for myself, my family and my community, but ultimately the most important thing we must do is raise the alarm on the climate emergency..It is time for courage.”

“It’s very important to defend the right to protest which is such an important part of our democracy and justice was served today,” she said.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties says misstated facts must be investigated

President of NSW Council for Civil Liberties Josh Pallas said today,  “A custodial sentence [for Coco] was neither proportionate nor fair, indeed the cost to tax-payer and waste of court time is outrageous. Justice has been done today, but at too great a cost.”

“It has subsequently been revealed that Violet and Jay were sentenced on the basis of a false assertion. This is a shocking case of the police misstating the facts which were consequential in the sentences of both Violet and Jay. The police have offered no justification for this misstatement of facts. They must be held accountable and at the very least, explain how they got this so wrong.”

“Activism changes history and the right to stand together and peacefully protest must be protected and defended for every citizen – not pared back. The current anti-protest laws fly in the face of what civil society, trade unions and religious groups all fight for. We must protect the right to freedom of speech and  peacefully assembly across NSW.”

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS. She has collected all her work on the protest laws on her blog here.


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