The shale gas company, Cuadrilla, has been accused of an “aggressive and sustained” pursuit of court costs of more than £55,000 against the leading anti-fracking campaigner, Tina Rothery.
Lawyers for Cuadrilla have accused Ms Rothery of “persisting in inaccurately portraying” the legal process.
A vocal opponent of Cuadrilla’s activities in Lancashire, Ms Rothery faces going to prison this week for contempt of court following a long-running and complicated legal dispute with the company.
Her solicitor, Paul Ridge, of Bindmans, said:
“I have never seen a company behave as aggressively and for such a sustained period towards a single protestor on the matter of costs as in this case by Cuadrilla.”
In correspondence to Cuadrilla’s lawyers, Eversheds, he said:
“The steps now being taken to seek payment have been started by your client and it would be possible for them to stop the action by confirming that they no longer seek costs from Ms Rothery and regard this matter as at an end.
“It is hard to see why this enforcement action was started by Cuadrilla (at some expense) and is continuing. In my experience this is out of line with other companies that seek injunctions against protestors.”
Mr Ridge said Cuadrilla knew that Ms Rothery could not pay the costs, adding:
“It is made all the more oppressive when they know that there is nothing to be gained.”
Cuadrilla has argued that the outcome now rested with the courts because Ms Rothery had refused to provide details of her finances. But Mr Ridge that if Cuadrilla dropped the case then the court would no longer seek the information.
In a reply to Mr Ridge, Julie Dilcock, of Eversheds, said:
“Your email below does not accurately portray the process in which Ms Rothery is currently involved and Ms Rothery has herself persisted in inaccurately portraying the process.
Ms Dilcock said:
“At no point has the Court ordered her to confirm that she will or will not in fact pay the costs she was ordered to pay in 2014. To comply with the Court’s order and purge her contempt, all she is required to do is answer the questionnaire.
“If Ms Rothery wishes to continue to disobey the Order of the Court and refuse to answer the questions that the Court has ordered her to answer (and which it appears from your correspondence that she has no objection to answering), that is a matter for her and no doubt the Court will deal with her continued contempt in accordance with CPR 71 [regulations]
“The Court has warned Ms Rothery of the consequences of her refusal to answer the Court’s questions and I have no doubt that the District Judge will again issue that warning to her on Friday.”
Open letter to Francis Egan
The call for Cuadrilla to drop the case has been repeated in an open letter to the company’s chief executive, Francis Egan, by Ms Rothery’s supporters. The signatories included the actor Emma Thompson, designer Vivienne Westwood, filmmaker Josh Fox, senior Green Party politicians, union leaders and campaigners from environmental groups. (See the end of this post for the full list).
They told Mr Egan the decision to pursue Ms Rothery “looks like a deliberate strategy to deter other protesters”.
“Tina is an ordinary citizen seeking to exercise her right of protest against an industry which, according to Government opinion polls, is more unpopular than ever because of the risks it poses to our health, to our local and global environment and to our communities.
“We urge you to drop Tina’s case, allow peaceful protest and halt the drilling – for all our futures.”
Friday court hearing
Ms Rothery has been ordered to appear in court in Preston on Friday lunchtime. If, as expected, she again refuses to give the court financial information, she could be sent to Styall Prison in Cheshire for two weeks.
The case dates back to August 2014 when anti-fracking campaigners, including a group called the Lancashire Nanas, occupied a field off Preston New Road at Little Plumpton near Blackpool.
The field was near where Cuadrilla had applied for planning permission a few months earlier to drill, frack and test for shale gas.
Following the occupation, two Cuadrilla companies and a group of landowners asked the High Court for a possession order that would allow them to evict the campaigners. They also sought an injunction to prevent access by members of 17 national and local anti-fracking groups to several other sites in the area.
The campaigners left the field before the eviction date. But at a High Court hearing in Manchester, Ms Rothery asked for an adjournment to allow time to consider the case for the injunction. She was the only named defendant.
When the case returned to court in October 2014, Ms Rothery offered no evidence. The judge ordered her to pay part of Cuadrilla’s costs for the extra court time.
The costs were set at £51,594.53. In January 2015, Ms Rothery offered £500, which Cuadrilla’s lawyers, Eversheds, rejected.
Ms Rothery continued to refuse to pay and in June 2016 the total had risen, with interest at 8%, to £55,342.37.
Case “has nothing to do with justice”
At a hearing at Blackpool Law Courts, she refused to give information under oath about her finances. She told a court official:
“I have huge admiration for a system of justice that is fair but I feel in this case that our law courts are not being used to seek justice but instead being applied like a weapon and a threat against peaceful protest.
“The fact that Cuadrilla has the finances, power and vindictiveness to pursue this through our courts is an abuse of one of the most valued aspects of our democracy.
“So please accept my apologies if this seems rude but as this case has nothing to do whatsoever with justice, I will not be complying with any requests for information or payment.”
She was judged to be in contempt of court and now has one more opportunity to give the court the information it asked for.
Supporters are expected to gather outside the court in Preston on Friday when the case is heard.
Full list of signatories to the open letter
Josh Fox, Filmmaker
Raoul Martinez, Artist, writer, filmmaker
Francesca Martinez, Comedian
Anthony Tombling, Filmmaker
Suzanne Jeffery, Campaign against Climate Change
Donna Hume, Friends of the Earth
John Sauven, Greenpeace
Ellie Groves, Reclaim the Power
Danielle Paffard, 350.org
Nick Dearden, Global Justice Now
Caroline Lucas, Green Party
Jonathan Bartley, Green Party
Natalie Bennett, Green Party
Manuel Cortes, TSSA union
Chris Baugh, PCS union
Matt Wrack, FBU union
Tony Kearns, Communication Workers Union
Ian Hodson, Bakers, Food & Allied Workers union
Graham Petersen, Greener Jobs Alliance
Updated at 10.31 on 8/12/2016 to include response from Cuadrilla provided this morning