TWO animal rights activists scored a victory for 'freedom of speech' when a court overturned their criminal convictions for holding a peaceful animal rights awareness stand in a Barnet street.

Tracey Rawlings, 45, from Barnet, and Miranda James, 43, from Essex, had been prosecuted in June for obstructing a public highway despite, they said, having made every effort to ensure their stand was legal and packing it away when asked.

Human rights organisation Liberty represented them during their successful appeal at Harrow Crown Court recently, claiming it was an affront to their freedom of speech and blaming the fiasco on over-zealous policing.

Liberty legal officer Alex Gask, part of the Liberty legal team which represented the women, said afterwards: "Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy which must be protected.

"Over-zealous policing suppressed this peaceful activism - it is clear these individuals were not blocking the pavement or otherwise disturbing the peace. "Hopefully, lessons have been learned."

In November 2006 Ms James and Ms Rawlings set up their stall opposite The Spires shopping centre, in High Road, Barnet, to seek public support for a campaign by the charity Animal Aid against the use of primates for scientific research.

Ms James said after the appeal victory: "It was going fine, but a few hours in we were confronted by three police officers. They asked us if we had permits and we told them we didn't need permits, but they told us to pack up our stuff and move on.

"We did what they told us and they took our names and addresses. We weren't very happy because we had made sure we weren't doing anything wrong and we'd made sure we weren't getting in anyone's way. It was ridiculous."

Months later the pair received summonses to attend court. Ms James said: "I was totally gobsmacked."

The pair were convicted in June of obstructing a public highway. Although they received an absolute discharge, allowing them to walk away without punishment, they appealed against the decision, to clear their names.

Overturning their conviction, Judge David Mole QC said: "In granting an absolute discharge, the magistrates no doubt felt that this was a prosecution through which no useful purpose was served, and we share that view."

Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler hopes the appeal will deter police from suppressing other peaceful campaigns.

He said: "Miranda and Tracey were not about to be criminalised for talking peacefully to the public about the thousands of primates which are subjected every year to horrific poisoning and brain injury experiments."

Ms James said that she and Ms Rawlings were planning to have another stand in the High Road, Barnet, later this year.