Two weeks ago, an anti-vaxxer group led by Michael Chaves, a 55-year-old former paramedic from Kent, visited the home of BBC Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine, protesting against his reporting of Covid-19.
The group served him a notice of liability for what they dubbed “crimes against humanity” for his stance on vaccines, weeks after doing the same at the home of TV’s Dr Hilary Jones.
Just days ago, the same anti-vax mob descended on a hospital in Colchester, where they tried to serve frontline health workers the same notice before threatening them with a common law Nuremberg trial.
The incidents this month were not unique; so-called sovereign citizens have been using common law to intimidate and threaten those with power for a while and their behaviour is escalating rapidly, an investigation by public service journalism nonprofit The Citizenshas found.
The common law system works on the basis that article 61 of Magna Carta is still legally relevant. Originally written in 1215, article 61 states that a group of 25 men would be elected to keep “the peace and liberties [...] granted by this charter” and says they can “claim immediate redress” if any of the articles are broken.
The article was removed from Magna Carta one year after it was written – a fact which means little to the anti-vax groups now using it to intimidate public figures by interpreting it as they see fit.
In September, one such group walked into a courtroom at the Royal Courts of Justice and approached the bench. Having attempted to serve the judge with notice of his Covid-related “crimes”, the group told officials they were accountable for genocide and would be “going to the gallows”.
Followers of the groups responsible often respond with death threats and calls for violence on Telegram.
The sovereign citizen ideology that is spreading among anti-vaxxer communities in the UK is not new and has existed for some time in the US – originating back in the 1970s.
Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst for Southern Poverty Law Centre, has studied the American groups for seven years. She explained many turn to both sovereign and QAnon rhetoric as a last-ditch attempt to gain a sense of control over their lives.
She said the US has seen escalating violence as a result of sovereign citizens and warned that the situation in the UK will only get worse if it goes unchecked, adding: “It is only a matter of time before someone snaps”.
She said “most often there is a level of desperation” which leads people to the ideology as a last resort. “Back in the Eighties and Nineties in America it was financial desperation. There was a lot of financial fear around foreclosure [and] in swoops a sovereign citizen, like a guru or group leader.”
She said they would tell prospective members “there is some sort of magic cure-all”, convincing people they were victims and “there is a way to get back at the people who wronged them”.
Goldwasser said the ideology is now being fed to families who have had children removed by social services. “A sovereign will validate that they are not the reason they lost their child to the state – that they are the victim,” she said. “Some also offer court services to help [families] get their kids back… for a fee.” This is not without risk and, in one case, a self-titled “sovereign attorney” in Florida was shot and killed after his pseudo-legal court challenge failed to return a woman’s children.
She said there is now a large number of Trump voters “stressed” that he is no longer president, a situation which, combined with QAnon conspiracies, has led many of them to become sovereign citizens. The appeal of QAnon and sovereign citizenship, Goldwasser said, is the fact that members “feel like they know the real truth that others don’t know”.
Because of this, members build up confidence – something which has led to several US sovereign citizens “pulling weapons on law enforcement”. She said while most members in the UK have seemed relatively calm, she has “zero doubt that the situation will get worse – it is only a matter of time before someone snaps”.
For many in the UK, the primary sources of information are the Common Law Court company and the UK Column – a niche West Country newspaper.
The Common Law Court is run via a website to which members can pay a £50-per-month subscription to “reclaim [their] rights”. By subscribing, members get an “identity card” declaring their sovereign status and the ability to access a plethora of fake legal documents. The company is also setting up its own cryptocurrency.
UK Column began in Plymouth in 2006 as the Devonport Column, a self-published newspaper with a readership of around 500 people. Convinced that the council was involved in an elaborate scheme to lie to the people, editor Brian Gerrish – a retired navy lieutenant – made it his mission to print the truth as he saw it.
A devout Christian and author of several books on theology, Gerrish is hyper-focused on the corruption of the legal system and the Bilderberg Group. The gathering of global powers, which began at the Hotel de Bilderberg in 1954 and has taken place every year since, was originally intended to prevent another world war. According to Gerrish – and a variety of conspiracy theorists – the group’s lack of transparency points towards the creation of a New World Order and a global elite.
Gerrish has participated in a number of protests against this supposed elite and, in 2011, he joined the British Constitution Group as it attempted to conduct a citizen’s arrest on a judge presiding over the trial of a man who had failed to pay his council tax.
Having spent years on the sidelines, including a failed run as an independent candidate in local elections, Gerrish and UK Column owe their current popularity to their willingness to jump on the anti-vax train. In response to the vaccine rollout for 12- to 17-year-olds, the paper’s website posted a live debate where it was suggested that children may be at “significant risk from both vaccines and vaccinated adults”. There is no scientific evidence for this, but it fits within their previous agenda of supposed child-safeguarding.
Elements of both QAnon and common law are combined in various anti-vax groups, who have convinced themselves the government is using the Covid vaccine to harm children and that it is their job to prevent it. One group, “Magna Carta 61” led by Glaswegian beautician Janie Walsh, has served notices to police accusing them of genocide and recently “seized” Edinburgh Castle. The aim was to return the castle to its “rightful owner” – an unemployed security guard who they believe is King Arthur.
The majority of Magna Carta 61 group members state that they are self-employed or in low-paid positions – the demographic hit hardest by lockdowns.
Peter Knight, professor of American Studies at Manchester University who has researched conspiracy theories, said they are difficult to tackle because they are often “tied up with a person’s sense of identity”.
To combat them, Professor Knight said governments “need to introduce regulatory measures to force platforms to uphold the kind of standards we expect from traditional media and other public fora.”
The comorbidity of sovereign citizen and QAnon ideologies peaks in social media posts from Darral Pinch, who co-runs the Common Law Court. Pinch and his wife Laraine regularly post a variety of conspiracies on Facebook, from 9/11 being faked by CGI to suggestions that random phrases are clues to the Queen being replaced by a satanic cabal.
In April 2020, Pinch celebrated the crowning of “King John III”, an Australian man who claimed he was the rightful heir to the British throne. Six months later, the family of Joseph Gregory Hallett (as he is actually known) were interviewed on YouTube and proved that he was neither a descendent of royalty nor heir to the throne.
The Common Law Court hastily recanted and suggested they had been duped, but a video posted on Facebook this year showed other members of the organisation and Magna Carta 61 group attending the swearing-in ceremony for the man they claim to be King Arthur.
Our investigation has revealed this man to be Gareth Barrett, a 41-year-old self-professed close protection specialist from Taunton. Barrett has previously claimed to be a member of the SAS and currently owns a business named Kingsman Secret Service.
Barrett has previously been pictured with Hallett and a photograph of his swearing-in ceremony as “King Arthur” features a man who appears to be a staff writer for UK Column.
Since September, Barrett has issued a number of proclamations via the Magna Carta Telegram group, advising followers to stop paying bills and council tax – which many have now done – because he claims Donald Trump has rendered UK statute law null and void. The reasoning behind this is that Trump (supposedly) co-owns the Commonwealth with the so-called King John III.
When approached for comment, the Home Office said freedom to protest within the law is a “fundamental part of democracy”.
But, added a spokesperson: “The police must deal swiftly with the selfish minority of protesters whose actions endanger the public, or stop people going about their lives.”
Gareth Barrett, Brian Gerrish and UK Column were contacted for comment but have not responded.
This story was published in collaboration with media nonprofit ‘The Citizens’