Ciarán Ó Carroll was "a bit surprised" when he received a letter in June summoning him to appear before magistrates at a London court. After being arrested during Extinction Rebellion's April uprising and spending six hours in Islington Police Station, a hearing was the last thing the 31-year-old from Dublin expected, given what he had been told when he was released.
"The sergeant said, 'I bet you're looking for your day in court, but you won't get it,'" Ó Carroll explains. "The police were certain there would be no further action. So there was that surprise [on receiving a plea hearing date]. Now I'm holding the thing they said I wouldn’t get."
Ó Carroll was arrested on the 17th of April at Oxford Circus when he refused to move from the street because he was listening to a woman speak about how the climate crisis is devastating her community in Africa. "They didn't have water, they didn't have food, they had to become refugees," he says. He was charged with breaching a Section 14 Notice of the Public Order Act 1986.
This was Ó Carroll’s first criminal offence – "I've never broken any rules, I was the best child in the world, and here I am giving my mother a heart attack," he jokes. Appearing at City of London Magistrates Court last Friday (the 12th of July) would have been daunting had he not been among 35 other XR rebels who were also there for hearings. Spirits were high, he says, and it felt more like a reunion than a court date.
He pleaded guilty to the charge against him and was given a chance to tell the judge his reasons for taking part. "I said that my background is in science and that my research into greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture has awoken me to the massive ecological threat we're facing. None of this is on a whim. It's the most vulnerable people in the world who are suffering now. We've got to stand up and do something. The judge said I'd articulated very well why I'd taken the action – it was as close to a commendation one can get from someone you're pleading guilty to."
Ó Carroll received a six-month conditional discharge and was fined £105. He also now has a criminal record. He is unlikely to be alone in this, as over 50 more climate activists are set to be summoned each Friday throughout August as courts prepare to prosecute over 1,000 people who took part in the rebellion around Easter time.
But what does a conviction mean for those who are non-violently trying to sound the alarm on the existential threat the planet and humans as a species are facing because of catastrophic climate change? Mike Schwarz, a senior consultant in criminal law at Bindmans LLP, who focuses on representing activists and protesters, stresses that no one is going to prison with a Section 14 breach, but that they will have to serve a sentence. This can either be a fine capped at £1,000, or a conditional discharge, which means they don't have to do anything.
However, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act means people will have to declare convictions in certain circumstances. "For people working in sensitive occupations, working with children or vulnerable adults, for example, there are enhanced checks and that would show up convictions," Schwarz says. "That could affect job prospects. It's similar for people in professions such as banking, law, doctors, healthcare, who might have an obligation to declare."
This is something that has crossed the mind of 17-year-old Daniel Moony from Hackney, who is going into his second year of A-levels at sixth form. He was arrested on the 16th of April on Waterloo Bridge and charged with a Section 14 breech and wilful obstruction of the highway. He is yet to receive a court date. Whatever the outcome, he is pragmatic about how a criminal record could impact his career. "I've considered going into teaching," he says. "Yes, a charge will show up, but just because it does, needn't mean you're not going to be a teacher or denied a job automatically."
Caroline Hunt, 76, from Bristol, appeared in court alongside Ó Carroll last Friday. She pleaded guilty to a public order offence relating to Waterloo Bridge on the 21st of and received a six-month conditional discharge and £50 penalty. She believes a criminal record will have little impact on her life.
"If I went for a job, in my profession [she works in theatre], I'd probably get it if I had a conviction from being a climate change protester," she says. "Going to America, if I wanted to do that, I'd have to fly – which I don't anyway, but if I did I'd have to apply for a visa, I wouldn't have the visa waiver. I don't think it'll affect my insurance. So there's pretty much nothing [in terms of effects]. The only thing is that, if I do it again and get arrested within the next six months, I'll have the book thrown at me."
For Ó Carroll, declaring his conviction has already affected him in ways he did not foresee – it almost became the difference between him being a homeowner and not. "The thing that I've come up against is getting home insurance," he explains. "I needed it to be able to buy a house, and the companies ask if you have any criminal convictions or upcoming cases. People were declining me. If I couldn't get it I wouldn't be able to buy the house." He had to go to a broker, and found one firm that would offer him house insurance.
Tim Crosland, a lawyer who is part of XR's legal strategy team, says it is impossible to tell how someone will react when you disclose a conviction, but a Public Order Act breach is not always viewed with the same degree of unease as some other convictions. "It's a fundamentally different situation from having a previous conviction for dishonesty, where a lot of employers – if they find out – are going to be pretty cautious," he explains.
As thousands of ordinary people across five cities – London, Cardiff, Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow – continue to participate in XR’s "summer uprising" call to action on the climate emergency this week, Crosland says everybody has to look at the balance of risks and work out what's right for them. Almost 50 people have already been arrested and could face a process similar to that experienced by those who appeared in court last week.
But Ó Carroll insists it is the wrong people who are in the dock. "There's something really wrong about bringing to trial or pressing charges against 1,000 climate activists," he says. "The real people that need to be charged and brought to trial are the politicians who are doing nothing and the business leaders [and] oil companies who are destroying the planet and directly leading to the deaths of many thousands of people. That's just incredible and gross and indecent."
You can donate to the Extinction Rebellion legal defence fund here.