Legal

Breaking: High Court curtails wide-ranging UKOG injunction against oil site protests

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Campaigning outside the UKOG site at Broadford Bridge, 11 July 2017. Photo: Broadford Bridge Action Group

A High Court judge has scaled back an injunction sought by UK Oil & Gas plc to outlaw direct action protests outside its sites in Sussex and Surrey.

Mr Justice Male granted an interim order which prohibits trespass on the sites at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex and Horse Hill in Surrey.

It also outlaws obstruction of the entrances and the highway, slow walking in front of vehicles, targeting contractors, locking on or climbing (surfing) on to vehicles.

But Justice Male refused UKOG’s attempt to include those who ‘encourage’ protest against fossil fuels within the scope of the injunction.

Justice Male said:

“I cannot presently see the justification for this provision.”

He rejected the company’s bid to prevent people watching or “besetting” a site. He said:

“It seems to me that the use of a word such as “watching” could deter protesters simply standing close to the access to the sites and observing the comings and goings.”

But later in the afternoon he agreed to replace “watching” with “loitering” to the concern on environmental campaigners.

Justice Male said there was no evidence of a need to apply the injunction to protesters who were intimidating or assaulting. And he refused UKOG’s attempt to include in the injunction:

  • Causing damage
  • Removing equipment
  • Behaving in a threatening or intimidating or abusive manner
  • Making any abusive or threatening electronic communication

He said there was no evidence to support these parts of the injunction. He also said the order should not apply to UKOG’s head office in Guildford.

In his ruling, Justice Male said the risk to UKOG and its partners were imminent and real. He said rights under the European Convention of human rights could still be exercised under the injunction with his changes.

“The grant of the injunction would be proportionate. What the order would prohibit is unlawful acts infringing the Claimants’ rights.”

News of the ruling was released 90 minutes before the hearing by UKOG’s lawyers, Hill Dickinson, the court was told. Justice Male said this was a serious matter and would be investigated.

The UKOG injunction had been challenged by six women living near the sites. They included the actor, Sue Jameson, two environmental campaigners, a therapist and a retired deputy head teacher.

Their lawyers applied this afternoon to appeal against the injunction. A decision is expected tomorrow (Tuesday 4 September 2018) DrillOrDrop report

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Campaigners outside UKOG’s Horse Hill site when the injunction ruling was announced. Photo: Jon O’Houston, 3 September 2018.

“Most expansive”

Previous injunctions against protests have been granted to Europa, Cuadrilla and Ineos. But the UKOG injunction was described as “the most expansive” so far sought by the industry.

At a four-day hearing in July, UKOG argued that it was not seeking to restrict legal protest. The company’s barrister, Tim Polli QC, said the injunction was proportionate and necessary.

He defended the inclusion of slow walking protests, where campaigners seek to delay deliveries by walking in front of lorries. This has sometimes been tolerated at some other sites by both the police and the courts. But UKOG said the protest was an unreasonable obstruction of the highway.

The six challengers said the courts should not make a blanket ban on protest actions. Their barrister, Stephanie Harrison QC described the draft injunction order as excessive and intrusive“. She said that if passed, it would be “the epitaph for direct action”.

It sought 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.”

Friends of the Earth, which intervened in the case, had said it was “deeply concerned about its impact on free speech and the right to protest”.

Reaction

Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, a named defendant in the case, said:

“It’s good news that UKOG has failed to secure the wide-ranging injunction it originally sought but we still regard the injunction that has been granted by the Court as a draconian, unjustified, and serious threat to the right to protest. We are seeking permission to take this to the Court of Appeal.

“However, we very much welcome the substantial reductions in the injunction’s scope in direct response to evidence given by Friends of the Earth.

“We are proud to have been able to join this case as a defendant alongside the six local women who courageously came forward to stop UKOG’s attempt to stifle free speech and peaceful protest. While UKOG have suffered a set-back today, we remain concerned that the injunction granted has far-reaching consequences for free speech, so this isn’t over yet. Friends of the Earth will continue to fight the growing use of anti-protest injunctions by the oil and gas industry.”

Mr Timms added:

“We fear that this injunction could put significant restrictions in place in respect of peoples’ right to protest on the highway, especially in relation to ‘slow walking’ protests. We are also very concerned that it has been granted against ‘persons unknown’.”

The Green Party MEP for south east England, Keith Taylor, said this morning:

“UKOG has no social licence for its operations and a history of not being upfront with the public nor its investors. They are scared protesters will expose their climate and environmentally-destructive operations to a wide audience. And, for that reason, they must be silenced. That was the driving motivation behind this injunction.”

“”The judge, however, recognised that protesters’ human rights were engaged and struck down some of the oil firm’s more draconian and anti-democratic efforts to curtail their freedom of speech and expression. That is thanks to the brave women from Surrey and Sussex who put their lives on hold to fight this bid every step of the way.”

“However, that the court has given UKOG even a restricted interim injunction is depressing. It is just the latest example of the death of democracy by a thousand cuts to our fundamental rights. I pledge to support any appeal against the decision. In the meantime, we will not be giving up the fight for our planet, our environment and the integrity of our democracy.”

Company reaction

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Stephen Sanderson, executive chairman of UKOG. Photo: DrillOrDrop

Stephen Sanderson, executive chairman of UKOG, said in a statment:

“UKOG is pleased that this judgement firmly upholds the Company’s collective human, legal and democratic right to conduct its lawful business without hindrance from the unlawful actions of activists whose intent is to cause physical, psychological and financial harm to our company, staff, contractors, supply chain and local residents.

“For the avoidance of doubt, this injunction did not seek in any way to remove the right to peaceful protest, freedom of assembly, or freedom of expression. It sought solely to gain a judicial determination of whether certain damaging actions employed by activists at our sites constituted peaceful, lawful protest or were unlawful. The judgement clearly rules that trespass on UKOG’s sites, interference with access to UKOG sites, obstruction of the highway (including by slow-walking, lock-ons and lorry surfing), and obstructing or interfering with our suppliers, does not constitute peaceful protest. Such actions are deemed unlawful and should cease to be employed by activists forthwith.

“Those who wish to assemble and express their views peacefully and lawfully outside our sites will remain free to do so, as they have always been able to do. However, such persons should read the notice outside our sites, or on our website, to ensure they remain within the bounds of lawful protest as defined by the injunction order. For the avoidance of doubt, the Company will seek swift and appropriate redress from the High Court against activists who openly breach the injunction.

“We must also stress that the motivation and necessity to seek this injunction was further reinforced by the recent disgraceful actions of a 50-strong mob of activists at the Horse Hill site near Gatwick Airport on Monday 20 August 2018. The actions employed by this mob, under the guise of what we understand to have been an “activist training exercise”, were threatening and intimidating to UKOG staff, contractors, local residents and the police. Nine arrests were made.

“As was the case in the illegal occupation of our Horse Hill site in November 2017, in this latest incident, UKOG’s security team was again subjected to considerable verbal abuse, threats of violence and assault. Local residents were also verbally intimidated, threatened, abused and had property damaged. Residents were also unable to go about their lawful daily business as the road was effectively blocked by the activist mob for over 8 hours. Many of the activists wore masks increasing the threatening nature of the situation. Mob rule and anarchy has no place in modern Britain.

“It is also ironic that those who sought to enforce their right to use such unlawful protest actions gave little or no thought to the human or democratic rights of UKOG, its staff, contractors, supply chain or local residents. Thankfully, we live in a democratic society where the law is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Judge Male has clearly stated that, in this case, the rule of law prohibits the future use of such “mob rule” tactics.

“We therefore trust that our opponents will abide by this ruling and employ only lawful methods to express their objections to our activities. It would be refreshing if such protests also fully respected the human and democratic rights of UKOG and local residents, enabling all to conduct their lawful business without undue hindrance or intimidation. Such fundamental behaviours are surely nothing less than is expected of all those who live and contribute to a free and democratic society.

Reporting from this court case was made possible by individual donations from DrillOrDrop readers

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