Five women campaigning against the oil industry in southern England have secured a delay to a wide-ranging injunction that sought to outlaw protests against an exploration company.
The High Court in London adjourned a case today brought by UK Oil and Gas, which aimed to restrict actions against its sites in West Sussex and Surrey.
UKOG had described the injunction as a “standard application” and asked the court to deal with it today. But a senior court official told the company:
“These are very wide-ranging orders to be served and they are exceptional orders.
“They have to be looked at extremely carefully.”
Chief Master Marsh adjourned the case for about six weeks when it will be heard by a High Court judge.
The campaign alliance, Weald Action Group, welcomed the outcome, saying it allowed local people to take stock without the threat of legal action against them.
Prohibition of lawful acts that intend to injure economic interests
The draft orders, issued earlier this month, sought to prohibit lawful acts by campaigners where the “predominant intention” was to injure UKOG’s “economic interests”.
If approved, the orders would prevent activities that breached the criminal law and some that did not. They would establish exclusion zones outside the sites at Broadford Bridge and Markwells Wood in West Sussex and Horse Hill in Surrey where campaign activity would be restricted. They would also prohibit people taking photographs of vehicles belonging to UKOG suppliers.
The orders have been challenged by five women from Sussex and Surrey. Four agreed to become named defendants in the case providing their exposure to UKOG’s costs was capped by the court. The fifth, also a named defendant, is seeking legal aid to fight the case.
Six other people, several of them local to sites where UKOG has an interest, told the court they wished to participate in the case.
One of them, Steve Ross Talbot, said:
“I have come to court to ensure that justice is done”.
Risk of fine or prison
The orders were originally made against “persons unknown”.
But the court heard that if anyone wanted to bring a challenge they would have to become a formal defendant in the case. This could open them to the risk of fines, prison or the seizure of assets if other people defied a future injunction.
Stephanie Harrison QC, representing Ann Stewart, Sue Jameson, Vicki Elcoate and Natasha Doane, said the order should never have been made.
UKOG should, she said, have identified in the draft orders any individuals who had committed unlawful activities listed in the injunction.
She accused UKOG of an “abuse of process”:
“Those who seek to defend lawful conduct, and have no intention of committing unlawful activity and have not done so in the past, have to take all the risk by being named in the procedures.
“This is, in effect, permitting the claimant to start proceedings without properly constituting a claim.”
“Deterred from protesting”
UKOG’s proposed injunction is similar to one granted to the shale gas company, INEOS Upstream.
Ms Harrison said:
“It is becoming the practice to bring procedures against persons unknown. There are going to be concerned individuals who feel that their ability to campaign against and participate in activities will be curtailed so they will be deterred from protesting.”
Stephen Simlett, for the fifth defendant, Constance Whiston, said:
“If you put your head above the parapet and want to say anything to the court you are exposing yourself to potential liability for damages and costs.”
He said the history of campaigns against UKOG went back several years. There was no evidence that the case should be heard urgently, he said.
Tim Polli, for UKOG, said:
“We take the view that this is a standard application.”
“It is difficult to see what they [the challengers] have to object to.”
Mr Polli said UKOG had not thought it appropriate to name individuals in the draft order. He said:
“The defendants have self-selected themselves. These are people who are regarded as appropriate defendants. This is the system working as it should.”
UKOG decided to seek an injunction after the occupation by protesters of the Horse Hill oil exploration site in Surrey at the end of November 2017, Mr Polli said.
“They [UKOG] genuinely fear that unlawful acts will be committed in the absence of an injunction.”
He said the company had installed 24-hour security at Horse Hill. It hoped that an injunction would make this unnecessary in future.
UKOG said in a statement last night:
“We do not want to prevent anyone exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.
“This injunction is aimed at a small minority of activists who seek to deny our fundamental democratic and legal right to go about our lawful business.”
Consent and access problems at Markwells Wood
Asking for a month to prepare evidence, Ms Harrison said the three oil sites were all different and had to be treated separately.
One, at Markwells Wood, in the South Downs National Park, had no current planning permission and a breach of condition notice had been issued against UKOG, she said. The company no longer had access to the site for certain operations, the court heard.
After the hearing, Jane Mote, a spokesperson for Weald Action Watch, said
“This is very good news for us. It allows us to be able to take stock and deal with very complicated issues without any real threat of an injunction in place. That is just.
“It is good that the judge listened so carefully and thought through the very wide-ranging scope of this injunction and put a pause on it.
“I was pleased that he recognised there are human rights issues, which is what we have argued. More care needs to be taken with the law to stop it being used as a potential tool against lawful protest.
“These orders are so wide-ranging they allow a lot of people’s rights to be taken away and that is not just.
“It makes people feel afraid to have a view, it makes people afraid to take an action and, in a civil democratic society, that is unfair.”
Before the hearing, the human rights campaigner, Bianca Jagger, told campaigners gathered outside the court:
“I came here to say thank you for the effort you put in every day of your life.
“I believe that you deserve to be celebrated as human rights defenders. You should not be regarded as anything different from the people I support in the remote places of the world. You deserve as much respect and we should be grateful to you for defending our environment.”
Brenda Pollack, Friends of the Earth south east England campaigner, said:
“This is great news for local residents, as well as the natural environment. People were shocked that such a development could even be considered inside one of our most precious landscapes.”
“Is it just a coincidence that UKOG’s attempt to use injunctions on anyone exercising their rights to peacefully protest against these developments, has come just as they’ve been told to clear this site?”
“We can’t afford to burn existing fossil-fuel reserves, let alone develop new sites, if we want to avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change.”
Keith Taylor MEP for south east England said today’s decision proved the importance of dedicated and passionate local residents and environmental campaigners:
“The High Court has today thrown a spanner in the works for UKOG and its attack on our human rights and freedom of expression. The firm’s desired injunction would have a chilling effect on the right to lawful protest and campaigning right across the South East. It was only just that the High Court recognised the draconian and wide-ranging bid was anything but ‘standard’ – as UKOG tried to claim.
“The decision to delay, however, means the fight against this chilling and anti-democratic injunction is not over. Residents and campaigners now have little over a month to prepare to take on the financial might of UKOG in the High Court to defend not just their civil liberties but those of all British people. I unreservedly offer them my wholehearted and continuing support.”
“There is nobody who cares about the health of British democracy and human rights who wouldn’t support the campaign against an injunction that seeks to criminalise thousands of South East residents. On my visits to drilling protests across the UK, I have met the warmest, most caring people one can imagine.”
“In a free and democratic country, a company’s economic interests should never supplant citizens’ fundamental human rights. UKOG’s injunction bid is not only practically unenforceable it is also anti-democratic. It presents an obvious and clear breach of the Human Rights Act. It will set a truly frightening precedent if it isn’t rejected out of hand.”
- The decision on whether costs for four of the challengers should be capped will be decided at a hearing on 29 March at the High Court.
Reporting from the High Court hearing was made possible by individual donations from DrillOrDrop readers. You can contribute to independent reporting by DrillOrDrop by clicking here