Three people have escaped jail time after a judge dismissed two charges laid under the State Government’s protest laws over a coal mine demonstration in the mid-western region of New South Wales.
The trio earlier pleaded not guilty to three charges relating to a protest outside the Wilpinjong coal mine in April 2017.
Magistrate David Day dismissed two charges of hindering the working of and rendering useless equipment belonging to, or associated with, a mine, in Mudgee Local Court on Tuesday.
Mr Day said in his 13-page judgement there was insufficient evidence to find the trio guilty of those offences, which carry a maximum of seven years in jail.
Environmental Defenders Office lawyer Sue Higginson, representing the three, said while the case marked a win for protestors around the state, the question still remained as to whether the laws harmed activism.
“That question is still live and open: do these laws actually burden that freedom of political communication?” Ms Higginson said.
“What we know is in these facts and in these circumstances, with the law applied to these three people, the Wollar three, that’s not the case, but the question is still live.
“The idea that these protesters were used as a test case for these new anti-protestor laws, really that objective has failed.”
Lawyer Sue Higginson addresses the media after the judgement at Mudgee Local Court. (ABC Western Plains: Nick Lowther)
Protestors concerned about ‘draconian’ laws
After the judgment was handed down, supporters formed a guard of honour for the three as they walked free from the courthouse.
Ms Smiles told those gathered outside the court the ruling was “a great day for us all”, but she and others were concerned about the “draconian” nature of the laws.
“To be charged with the criminal amendments the way we were, it was a real shock, and [the judgement] is a real relief,” she said.
Stephanie Luke, Beverley Smiles and Bruce James Hughes celebrate with their supporters outside Mudgee Local Court. (ABC Western Plains: Claudia Jambor)
While Ms Smiles and her co-accused avoided jail, they were given a good behaviour bond with no conviction for obstructing the roadway into the mine, which Mr Day described as “an old-style union picket line”.
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union was among many who have watched the case unfold over the past year.
South-western districts president Andy Honeyset said it “seemed like a fair judgement” and flagged the need to review the laws.
“Our organisation does a lot of protesting, so I think the Government has gone along way too far, so they [the laws] need to be narrowed and defined a lot better for sure,” Mr Honeyset said.