The shale gas company, Cuadrilla, was accused at the High Court today of trying to “demonise” anti-fracking protester to support its case for an injunction.
Campaigner, Bob Dennett, told a hearing in Manchester that evidence from one of the company’s witnesses was:
“largely just allegations, conjecture, exaggeration, hearsay and rumour and, in some instances, outright lies.”
Mr Dennett, along with Ian Crane, were challenging the injunction against a range of protest tactics, including slow walking, obstructing the highway, lorry surfing and lock-ons.
Cuadrilla said a temporary injunction, granted by Judge Mark Pelling QC on 1 June 2018, did not prevent lawful peaceful protest at the Preston New Road shale gas site.
But the two challengers said the order was already having a chilling effect on protest and breached human rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
Cuadrilla is seeking to continue the injunction until June 2020.
Earlier in the summer, the company said it faced “an imminent threat” from Block Around the Clock, a three-day protest promoted by the campaign group, Reclaim the Power.
Tom Roscoe, for the company, said today:
“The end of that campaign does not mean that the imminent threat of unlawful conduct has ended.”
There were many key future milestones in work at Preston New Road, including the start of fracking, he said.
[Without the injunction] “protesters will seek to disrupt, delay or prevent the attainment of those milestones by the same sorts of unlawful acts which have been deployed in the past.”
Judge Pelling is expected to give his ruling after 2pm tomorrow (Wednesday 11 July 2018).
Challenge to evidence
During today’s hearing, Cuadrilla showed montages of short video clips of protests at and near Preston New Road.
Mr Dennett, who represented himself, said the clips were “selective”, “out of context” and “edited to support the company’s case”.
One 20-second extract related to a vehicle windscreen being smashed. A protester was said to have allegedly used a chain wrapped round his fist and was later convicted of criminal damage. But Mr Dennett said new video evidence showed that the chain was being held by a security guard and the protester’s lawyers were now seeking to overturn the conviction. Mr Dennett said:
“If you see the full video, the protester did not break that windscreen. He didn’t have the chain in his hand.”
Referring to another videoed incident, a Cuadrilla witness statement said protesters refused to let farmworkers enter the premises of the owner of the fracking site and made false allegations that the workers drove at them. Mr Dennett said he was at that protest, which had been facilitated by police. He said he witnessed a woman protester knocked to the ground after she was hit by a 4×4.
In total, Mr Dennett reviewed more than 20 statements used by Cuadrilla in support of the injunction. Many were in witness statements by the company’s Head of Business Resilience, James Dobson.
The court heard that Mr Dobson said Cuadrilla, its employees, contractors and suppliers had been subjected to “daily acts” of direct action protest. This was an exaggeration, Mr Dennett said.
Mr Dennett said it was also an exaggeration, if not untrue, for Mr Dobson to say that incidents were sometimes violent. Mr Dennett quoted police evidence that protesters shouted and swore at times but had not been violent.
Mr Dennett urged the court to dismiss Mr Dobson’s statement that two known anti-fracking protesters had been identified outside the depot where a rig belonging to Cuadrilla had been seriously vandalised. The statement acknowledged that the police had insufficient evidence to secure a successful prosecution. Mr Dennett said there was no evidence that the protesters entered the premises.
He also said there was no evidence to support a letter from the local Chamber of Commerce that small companies were going out of business because of the protests.
Judge Pelling asked him:
“Why would the Chamber of Commerce seek to mislead me? They are reporting what they have been told”.
Mr Dennett replied:
“They are not seeking to mislead. I am saying there is no evidence that I am aware of.”
The judge pointed to letters from companies supporting Cuadrilla’s case.
Mr Dennett said many businesses had supported the protests and some had resigned from the Chamber of Commerce over its backing for the fracking industry.
Cuadrilla had also quoted a newspaper article which accused anti-fracking campaigners of making unnecessary 999 ambulance calls. Mr Dennett said:
“None of these calls were malicious.”
He said he made one call when his son was injured by a police officer and then refused hospital treatment.
“The claimant has picked up on this and tried to use it as evidence for their injunction to demonise the protesters.”
Cuadrilla argued that the June 2018 injunction order had been successful because the number of police officers attending the Preston New Road protests had fallen and there had been no arrests.
Tom Roscoe, for the company, said:
“There has been no trespass to the PNR land, no obstruction of personnel or vehicle movements to and from the PNR site and no unlawful interference with its supply chain.”
He said what he called the “good order” at the site had allowed the police to reduce the number of officers by about 50%.
“From the perspective of peaceful, law-abiding protesters there has been no diminution in their ability to assemble outside the PNR site and have their voices heard there.
“The six week period of calm, peaceful and lawful protest is in marked contrast to the previous experience.
“The claimants are optimistic that a continuation of the injunction will lead to a continuance of this state of affairs, which balances protesters’ rights and concerns with the claimants’ own rights and interests.”
Mr Dennett said evidence showed that police numbers had begun to fall in March 2018, before the injunction. He said:
“All the [protest] actions planned for June were carried out, including Block Around the Clock.
“It is my contention that there were no arrests in June because the claimants [Cuadrilla] did not put themselves in a position where actions planned for June would cause them disruption.”
He added that there had also been no arrests in December 2017.
Cuadrilla said the injunction was not restricting protest because there had been increased numbers at a regular Wednesday Women in White protest. Mr Dennett said the numbers at this protest had increased because it was specifically excluded from the injunction. People were unwilling to take part in other protests because they were unsure whether they would be affected by the injunction, he said.
“Injunction should be dismissed”
The other challenger, Ian Crane, also representing himself, said:
“Cuadrilla is seeking unprecedented wide-ranging relief covering an exhaustive list of ‘offences’ and alleged ‘unlawful acts’.
“If granted it takes the regulation of freedom of expression and association into a whole new area with severe wide-ranging restrictions”.
He said Cuadrilla’s application was misplaced and should be dismissed.
“There has been no attempt to qq an analysis of actual loss or damage. The imminent threat of Reclaim the Power’s [June 2018] protest has passed. Right now there is no direct or perceived threat to Preston New Road.
“On the basis of the past 12 months, we have not seen an excessive amount of activity that requires injunctive relief.”
Mr Crane said the injunction undermined what he said was the basis of democracy. People protested to raise awareness of the negative impacts of fracking, he said.
“If there is to be no opportunity to express concern, beyond standing on the side of street waving a banner without the penalty of losing assets or liberty, this should be put before parliament. It should not be put before a civil court.
“It is an abuse of process using limited evidence based primarily on social media, newspaper articles and conjecture.”
He added that the ruling in this case would become a precedent as the shale gas industry proceeded elsewhere in the country. Mr Roscoe urged the court to dismiss much of Mr Crane’s evidence.
The case was adjourned until 2pm tomorrow (Wednesday 11 July).
- Judge Pelling refused to admit as evidence a letter from Friends of the Earth. Two campaigners who had previously been part of the case did not give evidence because they could not raise enough money to be represented.
Reporting on this case was made possible by donations from individual DrillOrDrop readers.