A man arrested during protests at the Horse Hill oil well near Gatwick said he had received legal advice that he would not be committing an offence if he walked in front of lorries delivering to the site.
The anti-fracking campaigner, described as Daniel Nye, was giving evidence on the fourth day of his trial for obstructing the highway.
He and eight other campaigners deny charges that during February and March this year they obstructed Horse Hill road near Horley by so-called “slow-walking protests” in front of delivery lorries.
Mr Nye, who asked to be referred to as Master Lion, said a few weeks before he was arrested he had contacted the London law firm, Bindmans, which specialises in human rights. He said:
“A solicitor at Bindmans said it was OK to walk in the road”.
Master Lion said he could not remember the person’s name and they had not been called to give evidence in his defence.
On the day of his arrest, Master Lion said he felt bullied and harassed by police. He said they were trying to undermine his rights to freedom of expression and assembly under the Convention on Human Rights.
Master Lion was heard on video telling a police officer who warned he would be arrested ‘You are getting on my nerves’. In his defence, Master Lion said: “My understanding was he was acting unlawfully.”
Asked by Jonathan Edwards, prosecuting, why he had walked in the road rather than the grass verge, Master Lion said the Highway Code allowed pedestrians to walk in the road if there was no footway. Mr Edwards said other protesters had walked on the verge. Master Lion said this was dangerous because it was slippery.
The court also heard that before his arrest, Master Lion has contacted the Environment Agency and Police Liaison Officers about a smell, which he said was coming from the Horse Hill site during flow tests. The Environment Agency had said “there was nothing to worry about”, he told the court.
Paddy Horne, another protester giving evidence today, described Horse Hill as an illegal site. It did not have valid permits, he said, because “the site operator had not engaged with people who had a legitimate interest in its activities”.
Mr Horne, who represented himself, said he had taken part in protests against oil and gas exploration at Balcombe in 2013, Barton Moss in 2014 and also previously at Horse Hill.
Asked by Mr Edwards why he was walking in front of lorries Mr Horne replied it was the “done thing”. He said:
“It has been the done thing for at least three years. It seems to me it is custom and practice.”
“I understand these circumstances could put a strain on the police service”, he said, but added, “there is widespread opposition across classes and the political spectrum”.
Mr Horne told the court the atmosphere on the day of his arrest was tense and he thought the police were exasperated by the form of the protest at Horse Hill.
He said one minute and 45 seconds elapsed between when he was approached by police to move off the road and when he was arrested.
He said he had not caused an obstruction of the highway. But if there was an obstruction it was only limited. And if there was an obstruction, there was a lawful excuse because he had a right to protest.
Mr Edwards commented: “You have pretty much covered all bases there.” Mr Edwards asked:
“Are you prepared to accept that by virtue of the lorry being slowed that was causing an obstruction?”
Mr Horne replied:
“A pedestrian being on the carriageway, or a cyclist, will lead to traffic changing speed. What is an obstruction is somewhat ambiguous.”
Mr Edwards put it to him that there were alternatives forms of protest to walking in front of lorries
Mr Horne replied:
“My purpose was to make a fuss about something I believed to a grave danger because oil and gas companies are trying to crowbar their way into our communities without those communities being properly spoken to and involved to engage with what is being proposed or planned.”
The district judge, William Ashworth, asked him when would a reasonable obstruction become unreasonable.
Mr Horne replied: “It would depend on the circumstances.”
But he said he believed that walking in front of trucks the length of Horse Hill road, which is about a mile, could be achieved in 15 minutes and this would be proportionate.
He also told the court he was concerned about smells from the site, what he called the “deafness of police” to any complaints and the demeanour of lorry drivers delivering to Horse Hill. He said he had experienced “psychological trauma caused by policing failing to carry out their duty to facilitate peaceful protest”. He also alleged there had been a misuse of police resources and a politicisation of the police.
Mr Edwards put it to him that he was taking part in a direct action.
Mr Horne replied: “I really don’t know the meaning of direct action”
But he said: “If we gather at a drilling site and we express our concerns loudly, persistently and resolutely then our message will get across.”
“Protest was reasonable”
The court also heard the defence of Stephen Jackson, who said before his arrest he was distributing leaflets about a local public meeting on Horse Hill to drivers stuck behind a lorry which was being “slow-walked”. He described as “agony” the injury he received when officers handcuffed him.
“I was not part of the lorry protest. I just happened to get at the back of the walkers. I was expressing my right to freedom of protest.”
In an answer to a question by Mr Edwards, he said believed the police had been unreasonable but his presence in the road had been reasonable.
Another protester on trial, David Powter, said he wanted to raise public awareness against hydraulic fracturing. “We were carrying out a peaceful protest which I believed at the time I had a right to do”, he said.
Asked about communications between the police and protesters he said: “I got the impression that the police were not being very cooperative.”
He described the moments leading up to his arrest as chaotic.
“There are people banging drums. There are people shouting. The police are shouting. This lorry driver gave me the impression he would happily mow me down.”
He said he was arrested after he stepped into the road to avoid a car next to the verge.
Mr Edwards put it to him that the road was busy and walking in front of lorries was dangerous.
“That risk is present every time you cross the road”, he replied.
“Slow walking acceptable”
Neil Lamonby said he went to Horse Hill to support two women anti-fracking campaigners who were alone outside the site.
Minutes before his arrest, he said, he had heard a sergeant say that slow walking was acceptable.
He had been accused by police of being confrontational and he admitted he was embarrassed to watch the police video. But in his defence he said he believed the police were “out to arrest him”. He said he felt he was being “rail-roaded” when an officer “abruptly came into my space”.
He accused the officer of manhandling him. “Anyone in that situation would have found it hard to deal with”, he said.
The case continues tomorrow at South East Surrey Magistrates Court in Redhill.
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