An injunction against oil drilling protests in southern England is the most expansive so far sought by the industry but is based on exaggerated and oppressive claims, the High Court heard today.
Six women from Sussex and Surrey are challenging the injunction sought by UK Oil and Gas, which runs the Broadford Bridge site in West Sussex and is a major investor at Horse Hill, near Gatwick. They were joined today by Friends of the Earth, which was given permission to join the action as a defendant.
The women, who include actor Sue Jameson, two environmental campaigners, a therapist and a retired deputy head teacher, made their case against the injunction today. Their barrister, Stephanie Harrison QC, said:
“UKOG is seeking unprecedented wide-ranging relief covering an exhaustive list of ‘offences’ and alleged ‘unlawful acts’.
“It takes the regulation of freedom into a whole new area. It has obvious and severe wide-ranging restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association.”
Yesterday, UKOG said it was not seeking to prevent lawful peaceful protest outside the Broadford Bridge and Horse Hill sites or its offices in Guildford.
If approved, the injunction would outlaw actions that are offences, such as criminal damage. But it also includes protest tactics, such as slow walking, that in some places are facilitated by police and do not result in prosecutions or convictions.
Ms Harrison told the third day of the hearing that the company’s real intention was to “prevent lawful protest because of the inconvenience and disruption to their commercial activities.”
The injunction seeks to prohibit any form of direct action without defining what that means, Ms Harrison said.
“One of the observations we make is that aside from lobbying, any other form of protest at the site could fall within the definition of direct action.”
The injunction also seeks to prohibit combining together to damage the interests of the company. This could include any help or encouragement to people taking part in protests, the court was told.
Ms Harrison said:
“The terms of this order are having a chilling effect on individuals who have been involved in these activities.”
“My clients do not understand the parameters of the act of combining together.
“They need to know what they can and cannot do so as not to breach the order and put them in contempt.
“You should not have an order where people will be uncertain or unclear or where people are deterred from lawful conduct. People self-regulate. People will be cautious. They’ll think I won’t write this, I won’t encourage this because this could be some sort of breach of the injunction.”
Evidence from ‘Mr Spock’
Yesterday, UKOG showed a selection of video clips of protests as evidence that it faced an imminent threat from what it called “professional protesters”.
Today the court was told that the company’s claims were “oppressive and exaggerated”.
Ms Harrison said:
“Simply looking at isolated, inevitably-selected clips of video footage doesn’t give you a full picture of what has been happening.”
She told the court that most of the protests at the injunction sites dated back to at least a year ago.
“At best what can be said here there has been a pattern of incidents, the last of which of any significance are many months ago.”
The court heard that drilling activities stopped at Broadford Bridge two days after the first hearing of the case in March. The site is no longer active and its planning permission is due to expire in September.
Another site, at Markwells Wood in West Sussex, was in the first draft injunction but also no operations planning permission or right of access for UKOG. This site has since been withdrawn from the injunction.
On the final oil site, at Horse Hill, Ms Harrison said, the company’s claim that it faced an imminent threat was based on a single piece of evidence.
“The key evidence is from a ‘Mr Spock’.
“One person said ‘Horse Hill will kick off’. That is the evidence. It is a single post in response to a request about whether there was any action. It is an off-the-cuff comment.”
There had been no incidents at the headquarters for more than a year, Ms Harrison added.
“Not the same at Ineos”
Yesterday, UKOG urged the deputy judge in the case, John Male QC, to follow the ruling in the injunction case brought by Ineos Upstream, and grant the order.
But Ms Harrison said:
“The claimants have attempted to read over findings of fact and application of law from Ineos and we have said that this is impermissible.
“This is a case where the long-standing established campaigns largely centred around the local areas in Surrey and Sussex which is why we have local individuals who are prepared to take the brave step to participate in legal proceedings.
“These campaigns are genuinely important and significant because the claimants activities adversely affect their lives, their environment and their amenity. This is not the same as the factual circumstances as put before the Ineos case.”
“You can’t sue the bogeyman”
A key issue in the case is that UKOG brought the injunction against ‘persons unknown’. People who breached the injunction order would become named defendants and could be found in contempt of court, facing fines, imprisonment or seizure of their assets.
Yesterday, Tim Polli for UKOG, said this saved the company from serving injunction on a long list of people who had protested anywhere at any time. But Ms Harrison responded today:
“You cannot just sue fresh air or the bogeyman. There must be an individual or individuals who could be a named defendant.
“It is a somewhat bizarre proposition for UKOG to say that because we can’t identify everybody we can therefore identify nobody. We submit that the proposition makes no sense.”
She said UKOG had identified protesters when it served the original order. It named 10 local groups, 17 individuals and was sent to 44 personal Facebook accounts.
She said the company’s approach this did not follow legal procedure and she urged the judge not to make an order against persons unknown. This issue in the Ineos case is to be challenged at the Court of Appeal next year.
UKOG has not sought to defend the injunction at a trial where its witnesses would be cross-examined. But Ms Harrison said today:
“They have sought extensive wide-ranging orders and it is on those orders that they must demonstrate they would probably be granted an injunction at a trial.
“Imposing an injunction at this stage and in its entirety would effectively deprive a full and effective trial of the issues.
“There are two different analyses of what is happening. You need to have a full picture with cross-examination of the witnesses on both sides to see where the line between lawful and unlawful protest should be drawn.
“You cannot proceed on their version of their [UKOG’s] version of events, highly-selective highlights of the worst bits that occurred.”
Reporting on this case has been made possible by individual donations to DrillOrDrop