Injunctions sought against protests at sites operated by IGas and Angus Energy has been renewed by a High Court judge.
But His Honour Simon Barker QC accepted some challenges made at a hearing this week by an anti-fracking campaigner.
He also reduced the legal costs requested by IGas. And he ordered both companies to drop two controversial lists of individuals, groups and web addresses that had accompanied previous versions of the injunctions.
Judge Barker refused permission for the campaigner, Ian Crane, to appeal against his ruling. But Mr Crane said he would consider seeking leave directly at the Court of Appeal.
The injunctions cover Angus sites at Balcombe in West Sussex and Brockham in Surrey and IGas sites at Misson Springs and Tinker Lane in Nottinghamshire and Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.
They were brought against “Persons Unknown” and prohibit trespass on the sites and unlawful interference with access along private access roads and the public highway.
The injunctions specifically outlaw direct action protests, such as slow walking, lock-ons and lorry surfing. Protest is banned in exclusion zones along delivery routes around all the sites, except Ellesmere Port. Some of zones continue for more than four miles.
People who breach the injunction order could be held in contempt of court and could face imprisonment, fines, seizure of assets and extensive costs.
Granting the orders, the judge said he had accepted arguments made by Mr Justice Morgan, who had approved previous similar injunctions for Ineos, another shale gas company.
He said the injunctions did not prevent anyone exercising their rights under articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act to freedom of expression and assembly.
He rejected arguments made by barrister Paul Powlesland, for Mr Crane, that injunctions created a parallel legal system with harsher penalties for offences already covered by the criminal law. He also did not accept Mr Powlesland’s case that the injunctions would have a chilling effect on opposition or that the fear of costs in contempt cases would deter people from protesting.
The judge said previous evidence of obstruction and public nuisance on the highway justified granting an injunction for the Ellesmere Port site, even though it did not have planning permission.
But Judge Barker accepted Mr Powlesland’s argument that roadside verges should not be part of the exclusion zones. He also said there should be a change in the wording in guidance notes accompanying the injunctions. They had said that someone who encouraged others to take actions that would breach the injunction should themselves be in breach. The word “encourage” should be replaced by “incite”, the judge said.
He also said the injunctions should not include lists of names, to which early versions of the orders were sent by Facebook message in what looked like formal legal service.
The IGas list had been compiled by the company, and purported to name people or organisations opposed to the company’s activities. But the list included the website of the Tinker Lane community liaison group, which works with IGas to disseminate information about company operations.
The court heard that the Angus list was bought from a security firm, which compiled it on behalf of another oil company applying for an injunction at another site several years earlier. It included names of people who had never visited the Angus sites and had no involvement in protest or campaigning.
Judge Barker said:
“In my judgement Angus Energy’s approach was misconceived.”
He said it was “regrettable” that people believed they were being served with the injunction.
“I accept it was genuinely intimidating and distressing to be named and served.”
IGas sought costs against Mr Crane, saying he had prolonged the hearing because he made arguments that had been rejected in previous injunctions cases.
Judge Barker rejected the company’s original bid for IGas costs covering preparation and the entire two-and-a-half day hearing attended by two barristers and four solicitors. He also reduced the sum requested for incremental costs and ordered Mr Crane to pay £1,200.
The chief executive of IGas, Stephen Bowler, said this evening in a formal statement to shareholders:
“We are pleased that the High Court has renewed this injunction which gives assurance to employees, contractors, suppliers and the general public that they can go about their lawful business without intimidation and unlawful activity from activists.
“We have continued to experience situations where activists are putting themselves and others at risk, which is unacceptable. We have a duty of care to take the appropriate steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of everyone in and around our sites.”
Mr Crane said the result was not what he had hoped for. But he said involvement in the case had secured important changes in the order.
“We have to keep chipping away at these injunctions. It is critical that injunctions sought against “persons unknown” are challenged.”
He also said his lawyer had introduced new arguments that had not been presented at previous injunction hearings.
Vicki Elcoate and Pat Smith, who were “interested parties” in the Angus injunction, said:
“We are relieved that the Judge saw fit to strike out the list of names in the injunction which were wrongly included.
“We know how distressing it was to the people concerned and how intimidating it is to be stalked on Facebook by an oil company and served with an injunction through Facebook Messenger.
“To have to fight this without legal representation because of the cost – and prepare for the case and speak at the High Court was extremely one-sided.
“Angus Energy had a QC and five more lawyers in its team. It is inexcusable that people who have at one time or another objected to an oil drilling proposal on their doorstep have to go through this to clear their names. It is welcome that the Judge listened to the members of the community caught up in this.
“However we are still left with an injunction that pushes ever further the limitations on protest and aims to silence the huge opposition around the country to onshore oil and gas exploration. There appears to be a growing trend for injunctions against all forms of protest and these particular injunctions in the commercial courts need to be challenged at Government level”.
The Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, who represents the area including the Angus Energy sites, said this evening:
“These are the most restrictive injunctions on oil and gas protest yet. Each one goes a bit further than the last – we’re moving towards a massive clamp down on peaceful protest. These oil and gas companies say that’s not their plan, but it is what is happening.
“All over the South East local communities are being rail-roaded by these big corporate interests who can afford to go to the High Court and buy injunctions. There’s no equality here.
“At the same time they’re using social media to frighten and intimidate local residents by serving them with injunctions that accuse them of being unlawful protestors. This is about the erosion of our civil liberties in the face of a ruthless industry, which aims to wreck our climate, air quality and countryside”.
IGas said the notice of its injunction and a copy of the full text of the order will be made available at http://IGasplc.com
Angus Energy has not commented on its injunction. A previous version of the Angus injunction documents is at http://www.angusenergy.co.uk/site-and-exclusion-zone-injunctions/
Reporting at this hearing was made possible by donations from individual DrillOrDrop readers