Two women environmental campaigners who locked themselves together outside the Broadford Bridge oil exploration site in West Sussex have been found guilty under the old law of “besetting”.
Lara Bloch and Sarah McNichol, both 22, said they locked their arms through a concrete-covered tube to raise awareness of drilling at the site near Billingshurst and to attract media attention.
But prosecutors at Brighton Magistrates Court argued this morning that the women intended to cause disruption. Their action delayed operations and cost the site operator, Kimmeridge Oil and Gas Ltd, about £10,000, the court heard.
District Judge Christopher James said the protest, known as a “lock-on”, amounted to besetting, or wrongfully preventing people from carrying out work.
He found the women guilty under section 241 of the Trades Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act. The women, who had denied the charge, were conditionally-discharged for 12 months and each ordered to pay £500 in compensation, costs and victim’s surcharge.
Announcing his verdict this afternoon, DJ James said:
“You both have deep-seated beliefs but in this case you have strayed over the line into unlawful conduct.”
The case centred on several key issues: whether the women intended to disrupt operations at Broadford Bridge; whether they intended to prevent people entering or leaving the site; and whether there was a loss to the company.
District Judge James said:
“I am sure they did beset the entrance. They did prevent lawful access by others to enter the property and the motive was to protest.
“I am satisfied there are wholly appropriate forms of protest that could be used but this protest aimed to continue disruption for as long as possible.
“It was deliberately designed to obstruct access and interfere with operations of the site.”
The court heard that the women locked-on outside the main gate, off Adversane Lane, at about 6.30am on 12 June 2017. A four-person police protester removal team arrived at about 10am and cut the women free at about 1.30pm.
Kimmeridge Oil and Gas Ltd said in evidence it had expected three deliveries that day. One delivery had to be postponed and the others were delayed. Three vehicles were also due to leave the site. Among them was one of only two specialist trucks of its kind in the UK, the court heard.
Ms Bloch, a student from Oxford, said:
“The main aim was to raise awareness of the drilling taking at the site and to gain media attention.”
She said the BBC and other media outlets had reported the protest:
“We got quite a lot of media coverage. It did raise awareness of what was going on there.”
David Dainty, prosecuting, put it to Ms Bloch:
“The only reason you sat down in the middle of the gate was to stop the trafficking coming in and out.”
“No”, Ms Bloch replied.
District Judge James asked whether she realised that the blockade would stop vehicles at the site. She said there was a second entrance which she thought could be used by deliveries.
The other woman, charity worker Sarah McNichol, from Brighton, said she had found the lock-on device but could not remember where.
She said local protesters, who had been monitoring the use of the alternative access route, had seen vehicles use it to get to the site.
Asked why she continued the lock-on after a police warning that she would be arrested, she said:
“I was not sure that unless we were cut out it would be on the news.”
Mr Dainty put it to her:
“You wanted to get as much disruption as possible. Your purpose was to stop the lorries coming in and out.”
No, Ms McNichol replied.
Stephen Clark, for Ms McNichol, said the Trades Union Act used to prosecute the women had been designed to deal with strikes and picketing.
“If this section of the act is to be used to regulate protests it is for parliament to apply it.”
He dismissed the argument that the women could have used other, less disruptive, forms of protest.
“Otherwise the right to protest would be reduced to the least offensive, which would be the least attractive to media and public attention.”
To be found guilty under the Trades Union Act, prosecutors had to prove repetitious nuisance, not a single occurrence, and an intention to cause a loss, Mr Clark said. The women also needed to have surrounded the site, he said, had hostile intent and induced people to breach a contract.
The women had not surrounded the site, nor had any contact with people inside, Mr Clark said. The intention was to raise awareness, not cause a loss.
Franck Magennis, for Ms Bloch, said:
“There are reasonable doubts that all the elements that the court required have been proved. I invite the court to acquit.”
A spokesperson for Broadford Bridge Action Group said this evening:
“We believe the law has been mis-applied and that the right to protest is diminished by this judgement. These two brave women should be commended for raising awareness about this highly controversial threat to the environment.”
Reporting on this court case was made possible by individual donations from DrillOrDrop readers. You can donate to DrillOrDrop by clicking here or on the donate button in the right-hand panel.