Three anti-fracking campaigners who breached a protest injunction could be vindicated by recent earth tremors in Lancashire, the High Court was told today.
Katrina Lawrie, Christopher Wilson and Lee Walsh locked themselves together, along with three others, outside Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site near Blackpool in July 2018.
In June this year, they were found in contempt of court and were appearing before a judge in Manchester this morning at the start of a two-day sentencing hearing.
Barrister Richard Brigden, for Mr Wilson, said in some protest cases campaigners were later vindicated by history. But he said:
“In this case we may be in the territory where people are being vindicated already.”
Referring to the UK’s strongest fracking-induced earth tremor at the site a week ago, he said:
“Houses were shaking. Businesses, locals and others have come out against fracking in a way that they have not done before.”
“Unlike some contempt of court cases, there is no selfish motive here. These are conscientious people who are trying to do something that they believe will save future generations from an uninhabitable earth.”
Adam Wagner, representing Miss Lawrie and Mr Walsh, said:
“In light of what is happening, I make the following submission: it is not my clients who are the real danger here. It is Cuadrilla.”
“Free speech is a hollow concept if one is only able to express “approved” or majoritarian views. It is the intolerant, the instinctively authoritarian, who shout down, or worse, supress views with which they disagree.”
The judge at Manchester Civil Justice Centre, Mark Pelling, had already ruled out imposing a prison sentence on the three campaigners. He said his options were either no penalty, a fine or a suspended sentence.
Cuadrilla had asked for a suspended sentence with a condition that the three did not go within 250m of the Preston New Road site entrance for 12 months.
Arguing for no penalty, Mr Brigden said:
“The spectre of a prison sentence has hung over them for about a year and that has had a deterrent effect on them.”
Adam Wagner, for Mr Walsh and Ms Lawrie, said the protests were peaceful. If the campaigners had been found guilty in the criminal courts, the most serious penalty would be a £1,000 fine but they were more likely to receive a conditional discharge, he said.
Judge Pelling said:
“The civil justice system depends on everyone abiding by the orders that the court makes. It is not open for someone to say that the ends justify the means.”
He will announce the sentences tomorrow morning (Tuesday 3 September).
Challenge to injunction
Today’s hearing also considered an application to vary the terms of Cuadrilla’s injunction.
The three campaigners and Friends of the Earth had sought to bring it into line with changes made to a similar injunction granted to Ineos Shale following a successful challenge.
Appeal court judges in that case ruled that sections of the Ineos injunction were unlawful because they were too wide and insufficiently clear. The court removed a prohibition of the protest tactic of ‘slow walking’ in front of vehicles. It also rejected the use of the word ‘intention’ from parts of the order.
Friends of the Earth said yesterday it had been forced to withdraw from arguing for a variation to the Cuadrilla injunction. It said Judge Pelling had refused to grant protection from costs that could have reached £85,000 if the case was lost.
Today’s hearing was told that other circumstances had “materially changed” and the entire injunction should now be quashed.
The court heard that that following the record-breaking tremor, the Oil & Gas Authority had suspended fracking at Preston New Road for an investigation described as “open-ended”.
Mr Wagner said:
“Whilst no fracking is taking place on the site, there is no need for an injunction. It should now be discharged. In the event that fracking resumes, Cuadrilla can apply to resurrect this injunction, albeit in a less draconian form.”
Mr Wagner said Cuadrilla had accepted that the injunction order should be revised. But he said:
“Its proposed amendments would make the order even wider and more restrictive”.
It would continue to have a chilling effect on protest, he said.
At times, the crowded public gallery watched as barristers and the judge sought to edit the wording of sections covering trespass, blocking the site entrance, obstructing the highway, slow walking and climbing onto vehicles.
Tom Roscoe, for Cuadrilla, proposed that people should be prevented from walking along sections of the carriageway of Preston New Road either side of the site entrance.
He asked the court:
“Why should anyone on this stretch of access road be walking in the carriageway at all? Where there is a footpath they should not be walking the carriageway.”
But the judge said it was not against the law to walk in the carriageway. Lawyers for the campaigners argued that people crossing the road could be caught by the injunction. How many times was it acceptable, under the injunction, to cross the road? And would this stop people feeling able to cross?, the court was asked.
A proposed revision against people fastening themselves to a vehicle could cover people wearing seatbelts, it was suggested. Another proposal prohibiting interference with a vehicle risked covering people trying to help someone trapped in or under a car. A section seeking to prohibit people attaching themselves to each other could inadvertently cover holding hands or hugging.
Mr Wagner said:
“It [Cuadrilla] now appears to be including examples of behaviour that it thinks should be prohibited in the bellmouth [site entrance] without any reference to the consequences”
He urged the court to be “extremely cautious of adding back in ‘intention’ when the Court of Appeal had clearly disparaged its use”.
Judge Pelling will rule tomorrow on the application to vary the injunction.
The case adjourned until 11.30am.