Justice Stephen Males stopped proceedings less than 15 minutes into yesterday’s hearing, after he received a note from an independent legal representative who claimed to have witnessed tree campaigners intimidating Paul Billington, director of culture and environment at Sheffield City Council, as he entered the court to give evidence.
Justice Males described the alleged intimidation as a ‘serious’ matter and said it could amount to contempt of court, and therefore wanted a break in proceedings so this message could be passed on to those said to the relevant parties outside court.
Following the break, Yasser Vanderman, representing the council, told the court he had spoken to Paul Billington who said was ‘nervous’ about giving evidence.
Mr Vanderman said this had not been helped by campaigners sitting near him, talking to and about him, and how he could stop the felling. He conceded that the nature of the comments were no different to the dialogue Mr Billington often has with anti-felling campaigners, save for the fact he was about to give evidence.
Justice Males told the court: “If there is a repetition of remarks which appear to be designed to intimidate or affect him when he is going to give evidence then I could deem it necessary to remove the public from the court. Witnesses must be free to give evidence.”
He continued by reminding members of the packed public gallery not to visibly react to the evidence of witnesses.
Four campaigners, Paul Brooke, Simon Crump, Fran Grace and Benoit Compin, are accused of breaching a high court injunction banning direction action across various sites in Sheffield between December 2017 and January 2018.
The injunction prohibits protesters from setting up safety zones around trees set to be felled and also prevents them from encouraging others to break the injunction on social media.
Sheffield City Council was granted the injunction last summer in response to a growing number of protests opposing the council's controversial tree felling programme which aims to replace thousands of the city's 36,000 street trees.