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Extinction Rebellion architect found guilty of public order offence

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  • 10 Comments

An architect has been found guilty of a public order offence after refusing to move from Waterloo Bridge during an Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest in April

Tom Bennett, 33, who works at Hackney-based Studio Bark, was handed a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £640 in court fees at City of London Magistrates’ Court yesterday (13 November).

Police had ordered protesters to move from Waterloo Bridge to Marble Arch under section 14 of the Public Order Act, but Bennett – who was lying in the middle of the road at the time of his arrest – refused to comply.

The public prosecutor said Bennett had knowingly disobeyed the police order and had blocked a public highway.

He added that Bennett’s protest could have continued elsewhere and that Bennett’s right to freedom of expression ‘had to be balanced against the rights of ordinary Londoners to go about their business’.

Bennett did not dispute any facts about his arrest but pleaded not guilty, arguing in a 16-minute speech that his action was necessary to draw attention to and provoke action to tackle the global environmental crisis.

‘There is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that says climate change is already causing deaths – it’s not my opinion, it’s an established fact,’ he told the court.

‘The disruption [we caused] is unfortunate … but it is clear that the harm which could be averted is of a different category and scale.’

Nick & tom at oxford circus crop

Nick Newman and Tom Bennett, both of Studio Bark, pictured at an XR protest on Oxford Street

Source: Nisha Zala

Nick Newman and Tom Bennett (right), both of Studio Bark, pictured at an XR protest on Oxford Street

Bennett, who quoted David Attenborough and activist James Baldwin during the hearing, said governments and corporations were not doing enough to fight climate change – but that XR had successfully raised the profile of climate change as a social issue.

Speaking after the verdict, Bennett told the court he was ‘disappointed’ to receive a conviction for a non-violent offence.

He told the room: ‘The [environmental] situation is dire, but we could turn this around. For that, we need all of us: architects, journalists, lawyers and even magistrates.’

Bennett’s colleague at Studio Bark, Nick Newman, was present throughout the trial. Newman was himself arrested at an XR protest in October but is doubtful about whether his case will proceed after the Supreme Court said a blanket ban on XR protests issued by the police in October was unlawful. 

Bennett is now obliged to report his criminal record to the ARB, which could discipline him if it considers his conviction to have a ‘material relevance to [his] fitness to practise as an architect’.

The ARB declined to comment on Bennett’s case, but said that it would consider a statement from the architect, adding that it ‘endeavours to make all our decisions in a timely manner’.

When does the ARB care about criminal convictions?

The architects regulator has the power to suspend or expel individuals from the Architects Register when they are found guilty of a crime. This is what the Architects Code says:

A criminal conviction may be materially relevant to your fitness to practise, if, for example (this list is not exclusive):

a) it constitutes an offence under the Architects Act 1997 or other legislation directly affecting architects;

b) it arises directly out of your professional activities;

c) it constitutes an offence of dishonesty;

d) it otherwise calls into question your integrity.

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • The ARB should tread carefully in it's response here and think about the bigger picture rather than simply going along with the courts. Clearly this conviction has no direct bearing on his fitness to practise. Tom has in fact acted with great honesty and integrity, staying true to his principles to raise awareness of a globally important issue that has direct relevance to Architects work (as required by Standard 5).

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  • Since the RIBA has declared a climate emergency, it would be a great gesture if they paid the fine.

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  • Nice one Tom!

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  • I agree totally with David Edwards (and Recentlyqualified) and think Terry Pinto's suggestion is excellent. Is Tom Bennett the only XR architect? Perhaps there needs to be a crowdfunding platform for just such purpose, to be publicised by the AJ, as I trust this won't be the last of XR, and we can be sure government will find some other way of prosecuting them.

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  • Protest is easy, solutions more difficult. However Tom Bennett is demonstrating integrity and his actions surely have no bearing on his ability to practice with integrity. ARB should take no action whatsoever in my opinion, Tom Bennett should heed the words of the court too.

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  • Tom Bennett should be given a medal for his action. Architects, by their training and conscience, are supposed to be concerned about the environment and how to improve it. I am disappointed that more architects were not present at the protest and that they were not their to support their colleague. The Architects Institute should be supporting moves to improve the environment - that is actually their mandate - no matter how extreme. The environmental situation we are experiencing is mammoth and should be dealt with accordingly. Some support from the Institute and members would appreciated.
    Well done Tom Bennett.
    Architect South Africa

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  • Good. I'm tired of self appointed pressure groups dictating to, and disrupting, the general public. Obviously he doesn't deserve to be disbarred as an architect (not that the establishment ARB will do that anyway) but one hopes that acquiring a criminal record will stop him and others from breaking the law in the future. If it doesn't, then he deserves a custodial sentence next time.

    Finally it should not be the place of the architectural press, and certainly not the RIBA, to become cheerleaders for this climate change charade. I’m sure this stance does not reflect the opinion of many architects.

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  • Industry Professional

    Peter, you might be right, but it is also true that there are many architects who support XR, in particular young architects. And also many of these are not necessarily cheerleaders of the charades the RIBA and the architectural press prefer to endorse. The XR movement adopts civil disobedience and pacific resistance as strategies that have been in history paths to the improvement of conditions. The point is to disrupt in order to raise awareness and press for fastest change. Of course, you know all this.

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  • Industry Professional

    Peter - "I'm tired of self appointed pressure groups dictating to, and disrupting, the general public."

    Disappointing to see this kind of reactionary tabloid silliness on the AJ. XR are not dictating, they're campaigning for climate action because of inaction by government. The disruption they caused was mainly to police egos. Westminster itself was very pleasant during the protests, and having to go on a few slight diversions to get around was no big inconvenience.

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  • Tom’s actions demonstrate that he is a person of the highest integrity. As a youngster said to me recently “while the legal system seems confused (about how to respond appropriately), we can see what is right.”

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