21 September 2000
GM acquittal ‘sets no precedent’

By FWi staff

THE acquittal of 28 protestors who attacked a crop of genetically modified maize does not set a legal precedent, according to a leading agricultural lawyer.

William Neville, of Bristol-based solicitors Burges Salmon, said that a jury faced with a similar case in the future could reach an entirely different decision.

“There isnt anything in way of a precedent in a strict legal sense,” he said.

Greenpeace executive director Lord Melchett and 27 other supporters were cleared on Wednesday (20 September) of criminal damage to a GM maize crop.

The jury at Norwich Crown Court heard that the 28 activists raided William Brighams GM maize crop on his farm in Lyng, Norfolk, in July last year.

But the protestors were acquitted after the jury applied the Criminal Damage Act, which says property can be lawfully damaged if the action protects other property.

Further GM trials have been thrown into doubt by the decision.

The National Farmers Union claimed that the acquittal is tantamount to declaring open season for protestors who want to rip up crops on farmland.

But Mr Neville said: “That is a proposition I couldnt possibly agree with. The rule of law remains and the jury system has been demonstrated to be alive and well.”

The decision sets a precedent only in the sense that it would be hard to find a jury in the future who had not heard of the acquittal, he added.

Mr Neville said: “You could find 12 people who would take a different view to those 12 jurors and they would be perfectly at liberty to do so.

“A judge, if he is confronted with a similar case, is not obliged to say to the jury You must acquit. He can say You can convict or you can acquit.”

Mr Neville said: “I emphasise that it is not a legal precedent. Its up to the jury on each occasion. Its a clean sheet of paper each time.”

Anti-GM campaigners have pledged to continue their campaign against the technology. But police have warned that anyone breaking the law will be arrested.