A prominent anti-fracking campaigner has been ordered to attend court tomorrow morning in a long-running dispute with Cuadrilla over legal fees of more than £55,000.
The company and a group of landowners are claiming costs from Tina Rothery arising from a High Court action in 2014.
This is the second time in similar circumstances that oil and gas companies have pursued leading UK opponents of their operations for legal fees. Last month, the Royal Courts of Justice in London made a bankruptcy order against the campaigner and broadcaster Ian Crane following a request by Rathlin Energy. (See Ian Crane’s case at the end of this post)
Ms Rothery’s case dates back to August 2014 when anti-fracking campaigners, including a group called the Lancashire Nanas and members of Reclaim the Power, occupied a field off Preston New Road at Little Plumpton near Blackpool.
The field was near a site where Cuadrilla wanted to frack for shale gas. A few months earlier, the company had submitted a planning application for the Preston New Road site and for another site at Roseacre Wood.
Following the occupation, two Cuadrilla companies and a group of landowners sought a possession order that would allow them to evict the campaigners. The company and the landowners also applied for an injunction to prevent access by members of 17 national and local anti-fracking groups to sites in the area.
Cuadrilla said the occupation had caused disruption and distress to the farmer’s family and his business, although this was disputed at the time by the campaigners.
By the time of the hearing at the High Court in Manchester, the campaigners had left the site. But on their behalf, Ms Rothery asked for an adjournment to allow time to consider the case for the injunction. She was the only named defendant.
“It was made clear that if no-one stepped forward to say they would be the ‘named defendant’ that proceedings would go ahead without our involvement or possibly by selecting from video footage.
“Aside from being an integral part of this, I am also much lighter on responsibilities than others and also own very little; so my name went forward. I had no real idea of what would come but allowed a solicitor to represent me and to call for an adjournment so I could get advice.”
“Head above the parapet”
At the next hearing in October 2014, Ms Rothery offered no evidence and the injunction was imposed. The judge ordered her to pay part of the claimants’ costs. During evidence, it was revealed that Cuadrilla was paying the legal fees of the 10 landowners who lived at four different addresses.
Cuadrilla claimed costs of more than £60,000, later reduced by a costs officer. The judge at the hearing said:
“I am concerned that Ms Rothery was to bear the costs on her own; but the solution, it seems to me, would be for Ms Rothery to invite contributions to the order for costs from those who support her views and position, and on whose behalf she had put her head above the parapet.
“If Ms Rothery had kept quiet, an injunction would have been granted, avoiding the need for this hearing. As it is, this hearing has been necessary”.
Arguments over costs
It was argued on Ms Rothery’s behalf that the costs claimed on Cuadrilla’s behalf were excessive. She was one of many defendants and to make her liable for the whole cost would penalise her for exercising her human right to be heard. Cuadrilla’s lawyer, Eversheds, defended the costs in court documents, saying the case was complex and involved several areas of civil and criminal law.
In January 2015, Ms Rothery offered to pay £500, which Eversheds, rejected.
In May that year, the court issued a final costs certificate for £51,594.53 and ordered it should be paid by 10 July 2015. Ms Rothery did not pay and since then interest has been added at a rate of 8%. A court document now puts the figure at £55,342.37 and interest will continue to accrue until the debt is paid.
Cuadrilla said Ms Rothery “had a full opportunity to make submissions on what she consider that she should and should not pay”.
Tomorrow’s court session
Ms Rothery, who is now not represented by a lawyer, has been ordered to attend at Blackpool Law Courts at 10am. She will be required to give information under oath about her finances. There will not be a judge and Cuadrilla nor the landowners will be present.
If Ms Rothery fails to attend, the court has warned that she may be “sent to prison for contempt of court”.
Ms Rothery said:
“I will tell the Court Officers that I will not pay any amount. More than the simple fact of not being able to pay, this is about reaching my own line-in-the-sand point in this long struggle.
“I now see clearly that this industry (like many others I expect) uses anything it can to silence opposition and time and again, uses our law courts against peaceful protesters.
“I believe our law courts should be about seeing true justice, not as a weapon against opposition. Our law courts and legal system are a costly indulgence that eats time and money that activists just don’t have.
“I don’t know what happens next but do know that as I am protecting my young I will not be stopped because this is an obligation, not a choice.”
Cuadrilla said today
“There are several steps claimants can take if they want to pursue recovery of the costs and the landowners will review this following the information gained from tomorrow’s proceedings.”
Ian Crane’s case
DrillOrDrop has reported on the case of Ian Crane, who was made bankrupt following an application by Rathlin Energy, a drilling company with operations in East Yorkshire. His case has parallels with Ms Rothery’s.
In July 2014, a group of campaigners occupied land at Crawberry Hill, at one of Rathlin’s exploration sites. The company applied to the High Court in London for a possession order. Mr Crane and three others asked for the case to be adjourned and moved to Hull because of the public interest in it.
The judge refused and granted a possession order to Rathlin Energy. The company then sought to recover costs from Mr Crane alone, amounting to £34,000 plus interest and additional costs and legal fees.
After the final hearing in May 2016, Mr Crane said:
“It is my opinion that the whole process here is an abuse of process.”
“Rathlin have made a point of targeting myself as one of the four named defendants. The reason for that is very clear. I have been a very vocal critic of Rathlin Energy. I have highlighted many of the problems they have caused in East Yorkshire.”
He said the company was seeking to “limit and restrict” his activities by making him bankrupt.
But he added:
“It is an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe. I do not have any property or any assets so there is nothing to shut down.”