The first UK anti-fracking campaigners found guilty of breaching a protest injunction have failed to overturn the ruling against them.
Appeal court judges ruled that Katrina Lawrie, Christopher Wilson and Lee Walsh were in contempt of court. A suspended prison sentences imposed on Ms Lawrie was reduced from two months to four weeks. They said a “less severe punishment is necessary to deter such a person from further law-breaking.”
In a ruling handed down in London this morning, Lord Justice Leggatt dismissed their argument that the protests should not have been prohibited by the injunction.
The three campaigners had previously been acquitted in the magistrates’ court for obstructing the highway in a lock-on protest outside Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in July 2018.
They appealed against both the finding and the sentence last month.
Their barrister, Kirsty Brimelow QC argued that the injunction order was unclear and should not be used to commit protesters for contempt of court.
She submitted that a person with no legal knowledge would not understand that they would be held to intend a probable consequence of their actions even if they did not have this in mind at the time.
Ms Brimelow also said the suspended prison sentences were “manifestly excessive”. The judge at the contempt of court trial had failed to “pay proper attention” to the sanctions that would be used in the criminal courts, she said.
But Lord Leggatt in his ruling this morning said he did not accept the argument that the terms of the injunction were insufficiently clear.
He said he did not accept that references in the injunction to intention were difficult for the public to understand and should not have been included.
Lord Leggatt defended the injunction order granted to Cuadrilla:
“There was a well document history of obstruction and attempts to obstruct access to and egress from Cuadrilla’s site [at Preston New Road] by blocking the site entrance and by obstructing the highway or otherwise interfering with traffic.”
That “clearly infringed the claimants’ rights of free passage” and was a “solid basis” for one part of the injunction, he said.
“I am therefore satisfied that, when considering the sanctions imposed on the appellants, it cannot be said in mitigation that the acts which formed the basis of the committal order were not acts which ought to have been prohibited by the injunction.”
Lord Justice Underhill, one of the other judges who heard the appeal, said:
“The courts attach great weight to the right of peaceful protest, even where this causes disruption to others; but it is also important for the rule of law that deliberate breaches of court orders attract a real penalty and I can see nothing wrong in principle in the judges conclusion that the appellants’ conduct here merited a custodial sentence, albeit suspended.”
All three campaigners received suspended sentences of four weeks for the lock-on protest. Lord Leggatt said the trial judge was entitled to conclude that these sentences were justified “by the need to protect the rights of the claimants and to maintain the court’s authority”. He said:
“It cannot be said that the judge’s decision to impose suspended terms of imprisonment of four weeks was wrong in principle or outside the range of decisions reasonably open to him.”
At the original trial, Ms Lawrie was also found guilty of two further breaches of the injunction and sentenced to a total of two months.
On her sentence, Lord Leggatt said:
“I do not consider that the term of imprisonment of two months which the judge imposed was justified.
“In my judgement, although the judge was right to conclude that the custody threshold was crossed, the appropriate penalty for this contempt of court was the same as that imposed for the earlier contempt committed by all three applicants – that is a suspended term of imprisonment of four weeks.”
The judge added:
“A person who engages in acts of civil disobedience establishes a moral difference between herself and ordinary law-breakers which it is right to take into account in determining what punishment is deserved,” he added.
“The fact that such a protester is generally – apart from their protest activity – a law-abiding citizen, there is reason to expect that less severe punishment is necessary to deter such a person from further law-breaking.”
Cuadrilla had claimed costs against the campaigners. DrillOrDrop understood that at the time of the trial the sum could have amounted to £70,000.
The appeal court has granted permission for an appeal against the High Court decision that the appellants should pay Cuadrilla’s costs. This is expected to be heard in the coming weeks.
A statement from Robert Lizar Solicitors, which represented the campaigners, said:
“Importantly the court gave detailed guidance on the appropriate sanctions in political protest cases, stating in the clearest terms in a UK court judgement to date that “greater clemency” should be shown in cases of non-violence civil disobedience.”
The statement added:
“The appellants will now argue that [the order by the High Court] on costs breaches their human rights to a fair trial and access to the courts.
“If this argument does not succeed, they are likely to be liable to pay tens of thousands for Cuadrilla’s corporate lawyers.
“There is a huge disparity between the resources of protesters and large corporations obtaining these kind of anti-protest injunctions particularly as legal aid is not generally available to challenge the injunctions themselves.”