Environmental activists in the United Kingdom could find themselves facing more charges of criminal damage after the Court of Appeal in London ruled they will no longer be able to use their political or philosophical beliefs as a defense in court in England and Wales.

Damage to property has become an increasingly common and high-profile course of action for groups looking to draw attention to issues such as climate change.

Last November, nine members of the Extinction Rebellion group were acquitted by a jury after facing charges for breaking windows at the European headquarters of banking group HSBC in 2021, at an estimated cost of half a million pounds ($634,440), in a protest over fossil fuel investments.

Sally Hobson, who prosecuted that case, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper last month that concern about the climate “is not a license for defendants to engage in vigilante action”, and that the defense “is being used for a purpose never intended or anticipated by the legislators”.

In the aftermath of that case, Attorney General Victoria Prentis asked the Court of Appeal to clarify the law, and its ruling has now been handed down.

Sue Carr, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said the court “holds that the circumstances of the damage have to be linked directly to the damage”.

“They might include, for example, the time, place, and extent of the damage. In a protest case, they would include the fact that the damage was caused as part of a protest. But the circumstances would not include the political or philosophical beliefs of the person causing the damage … those matters are too remote from the damage.”

Prentis welcomed the ruling, saying: “Climate change is an important issue and while the right to protest must be protected, it does not give a right to cause serious criminal damage, no matter how strongly held a belief is. Today’s judgment is important as it … clarifies that the importance or merits of a protest are not the ‘circumstances’ of damage caused during that protest.

“It is essential that these cases are dealt with consistently, so we welcome the court’s ruling which will ensure consistency and give judges much needed clarity in this important area of law.”

On social media platform X, protest group Just Stop Oil said: “One of the last defenses in law for committing criminal damage as an act of civil resistance has been removed. It’s one law for them (corporations and government), and another for the rest of us. Whilst their corruption goes unchecked, ordinary people are losing our rights to dissent, and any legal defenses we have for doing so.”