Three anti-fracking campaigners have been found in contempt of court for taking part in a protest outside Cuadrilla’s shale gas site in Lancashire.
A judge at the High Court in Manchester said he would not send the protesters to prison. He said the most severe penalty would be a suspended prison sentence. But he said he had not reached a conclusion on sentencing.
In the first case of its kind in the UK, Mr Justice Pelling QC ruled that Katrina Lawrie (41), Christopher Wilson (55) and Lee Walsh (44) breached the terms of an injunction in force at the Preston New Road site near Blackpool.
They had locked their arms inside tubes in a protest in the site entrance on 24 July 2018. The action prevented lorries getting in or out of the site for about six and a half hours.
Four months ago, the three, along with two other people, were acquitted at Blackpool Magistrates Court of criminal offences arising from the same protest.
Judge Pelling had granted the injunction to Cuadrilla in July 2018. This outlawed specific types of protest, as well as obstruction at the site, trespass and conspiracy to delay or cause inconvenience against Cuadrilla or its contractors.
He told a packed courtroom this morning:
“There can be no doubt that the respondents breached the injunction. It is beyond reasonable doubt that they intended to slow or stop the traffic.”
Judge Pelling said the terms of an injunction must be sufficiently clear to be lawful. But he rejected evidence from the protesters that they did not know what was covered by the order as “incredible”.
He said photographs showed it would be impossible for Miss Lawrie not to have seen notices about the injunction. It was inconceivable that Mr Wilson would not have found out about the order, he said. Security guards were pictured trying to point out the terms to all three, the judge added.
“I find proof to a criminal standard that each of the respondents knew about the terms of the order.”
Judge Pelling said the language of the relevant parts of the injunction was “entirely clear”.
He adjourned sentencing for the three protesters and Friends of the Earth to seek a variation of the terms of the injunction.
First case for breach of injunction
This is the first time anti-fracking campaigners have been brought to court for breaching the terms of an injunction. It is also thought to be the first time a company has attempted to bring proceedings against protesters for alleged breaches of a “persons unknown” injunction.
During a two-day trial earlier this week, Cuadrilla argued that the protesters “deliberately breached” the injunction and “showed a reckless disregard for the authority of this court”. Lawyers said the three had sought to cause delay and inconvenience to Cuadrilla and its contractors. Reports from day one and day two
The company also alleged that Miss Lawrie breached the terms of the injunction at two protests on 1 and 3 August 2018 and one on 22 September 2018. Mr Walsh was accused of another breach on 1 August 2018.
The judge said the evidence on these protests was proved to a criminal standard. But he said it would not be in the public interest to take any further action or impose further penalties, he said.
Lawyers for the protesters had argued that a Court of Appeal decision which quashed terms of a similar injunction granted to Ineos was binding on the court in Manchester.
They said the three protesters could not have fully understood the injunction and that it was too vague to be lawful. They also argued that human rights law requires the judge to assess whether the actions of the protesters were reasonable and proportionate. The legal team said given the importance of the case and the peaceful and limited nature of the protests the actions were both reasonable and proportionate.
“Entire movement on trial”
After the hearing, Katrina Lawrie said:
“We were acutely aware that although only three people were on trial, the entire anti-fracking movement has been on trial in this case. The right of the entire population to peacefully protest has been eroded by these private injunctions.
“Although being found guilty is disappointing it is not surprising to any of us.
“I am sad it has come to this. I am frustrated that we have seen our rights eroded but we will continue as a movement to keep on the fight against a dirty fossil fuels industry and, if anything, it strengthens our stand to continue the fight.”
“Dangerous, disrespectful and illegal activity”
In a statement, Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, said:
“We respect the right to legal and peaceful protest but too often we have seen the opposite with dangerous, disrespectful and illegal activity around our shale gas exploration site in Preston New Road. Local people, our staff and contractors have rights too and they must be equally protected.
“What we are hearing, on a day to day basis from our local communities, is that the disruptive activities of a small group of activists is their main problem. Not Cuadrilla. Not the exaggerated claims about micro seismicity which causes no more vibration than that experienced everyday by standing by a busy road and not the hydraulic fracture process itself, which the wide ranging and comprehensive regulatory monitoring of our operations has proven to be safe.
“The court heard how the defendants acted in ways that were dangerous and designed to cause maximum disruption to people who daily use Preston New Road to go to and from work or drop their children at school. The defendants wrongly believed that their illegal protest should be allowed to interfere with and supercede everyone else’s right to work, travel or go about their day to day business.
“Cuadrilla is genuinely sorry for the inconvenience experienced by local people and will do everything possible to minimise it, including through legal means such as this injunction.”
“Great concern that peaceful protesters are in contempt of court”
Friends of the Earth is seeking to bring the terms of the Cuadrilla injunction into line with changes to the Ineos injunction made by the Court of Appeal.
The organisation’s head of political affairs, Dave Timms, said:
“Substantial parts of the Cuadrilla injunction are unlawful and incompatible with the Court of Appeal ruling on the Ineos order. Nothing that has happened today changes that.
“We maintain that these draconian injunctions are disproportionate restrictions on free speech and the right to protest and it is of great concern that peaceful protesters have been found in contempt of court.”
“Fossil fuel industries should be on trial”
“Whilst the government hollowly declares a climate emergency, it is people like these three protesters who are taking the action we need to tackle the climate crisis. Companies like Cuadrilla should not be allowed to bully their way through the courts. It’s the fossil fuel industries instead who should be on trial”
Robert Lizar solicitors, which represented the protesters, said:
“Injunctions such as this have a chilling effect on the right to peaceful protest. Britain has a proud history of protest. It forms the essence of civic society… Civil disobedience has long been exercised as a form of legitimate protest.
Anna Vickerstaff from climate campaign organisation 350.org said:
“The gross power given to corporations being granted blanket injunctions to ‘persons unknown’ is an affront to democracy.
“The prosecution of peaceful protesters in this way is especially alarming after a similar injunction from Ineos was deemed “too wide and uncertain” at the court of appeal earlier this year.
“Instead of being punished, these protesters should be applauded for taking action to resist an unwanted and unneeded industry that perpetuates the climate crisis. The local community and national opinion are behind them, the government should step up to the table and ban fracking immediately.”
- The hearing resumes on 2 and 3 September 2019 for sentencing and an application by Friends of the Earth and the three campaigners to vary the Cuadrilla injunction order.