Out of their depth

If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you’ll remember the hobbits living comfortably in the green, cosy Shire – oblivious to the gathering of the darkness elsewhere in Middle Earth.

According to Roger Hallam, they’re alive and well, and working in a courtroom near you. They’re the judges and prosecutors sending people to prison for peaceful resistance in the name of survival.

While such punitive action isn’t very hobbit-like, the underlying world-view couldn’t be more fitting of the Shire. Here, turmoil and chaos are unthinkable. This is an ordered world, in which your first breakfast, followed by your second breakfast, roll around like clockwork every day. Hell is unimaginable.

Hobbits want to maintain their peace and comfort at all costs, and today’s legal system has the same priority. It can’t assimilate the reality we face: of billions displaced, mass death, starvation, whole regions of the world falling like dominos into abject suffering. 

Talk to judges of these horrors during a climate trial and they’ll look at you blankly. That’s if they haven’t shut you down already by prohibiting any mention of the climate, as Judge Silas Reid has done in the on-going Insulate Britain trials.

But talk of how drivers couldn’t get home in time for tea, or how a nice building got messed up with some paint, and they’re back in their comfort zone. These Judges can spend hours unpicking such everyday situations: the niggles of the Shire.

But horror is about to shatter this tiny world. Mordor is unfolding and the response from judges and lawyers is paralysis. They’re way out of their depth, unequipped to confront the moral depravity that is the carbon economy, spanning vast swathes of time and space.

For this reason climate trials are currently pushing the legal system to the limit. Features of the law that have historically been taken for granted – such as the right to explain motivation – are being  thrown out. The motives driving climate defendants are so profound and so urgent that the dated machinery of the law is at a loss before them.

The judiciary knows that, faced with these overwhelming motives, juries will start giving the ‘wrong’ answer, acquitting people who ‘should’ be convicted, applauding those who ‘should’ be condemned. So it starts manipulating the process – pre-selecting charges, throwing out defences, jailing those who do speak out –  to try and keep the system on track.

But this system is created for the Shire, not for the encounter with Mordor. And deep down everyone knows that the Shire is already in danger. Simply ensuring law-abiding people can avoid disruption is to completely miss the real threat: that they will lose their homes and livelihoods sooner rather than later if there’s enough profit to be made.

Lawyers: why are you missing this essential point? Why are you protecting people from minor inconvenience today so they can be thrown into the fire tomorrow? By persisting with the myth of a safe, comfortable Shire, you’re closing your eyes and ears to Mordor’s deadly plan. Yes, you may be doing a good job maintaining law and order, eliminating disruption, stopping jurors hearing of horrors that might rock the boat. But all these markers of excellent legal performance are only hastening the chaos you want to avert.

You can do so much better than this. Listen to the call of this hour in history: it’s unprecedented. It’s testing you – what are you really made of? Of complicity and cowardice, or bravery and love? Do you ever wonder what choice you’d have made if you’d lived in 1930s Germany: collaboration or resistance? Evil has come again: we’re facing it right now. Are you the person you thought you were?

The time has come to find out. So gather together, find strength in numbers and make public that the way the law is implemented needs to change. Growing numbers of your colleagues are signing this declaration to refuse to take on climate cases or work with oil companies. It breaks with a time-honoured principle of our legal system: that as a lawyer, you can’t turn down cases. But as it stands, the law is failing the people of our country and the world, so a radical break is exactly what’s needed.

Join with them and follow them on this path. It’s uncharted but so is the crisis we are facing. If the silencing and criminalising of climate resistance continues, history and our children will be the harshest judge of all.

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