A High Court judge has approved major cuts to one of England’s widest-ranging injunctions against protests at oil and gas sites.
In a remote hearing today, Mrs Justice Falk reduced the scope and impact of the interim injunction first granted to UK Oil & Gas plc (UKOG) in 2018.
Opponents had previously described the injunction terms as “draconian, oppressive and unjustified”. Judge Falk said the revised order had been “radically scaled back” on earlier versions.
It now applies only to a handful of named people instead of the 100+ previously listed by UKOG. It covers only the Horse Hill oil site in Surrey and no longer to UKOG’s Broadford Bridge site in West Sussex or the company’s Guildford headquarters.
UKOG has dropped a prohibition on slow walking protests, where campaigners seek to delay delivery vehicles entering the site by walking slowly in front.
Campaigners can protest in parts of the Horse Hill entrance, known as the bellmouth, without breaching the injunction if they do not obstruct access to or from the site, the court said.
The injunction continues to outlaw trespass on the site, obstruction of the entrance and lorry surfing, where protesters climb onto vehicles to disrupt operations. People found to be in breach of an injunction can be fined, sent to prison or have their assets seized.
DrillOrDrop reported last week that UKOG was seeking permission from the court to make these changes. The company’s opponents said these revisions had been sought by some campaigners nearly two years ago.
Approving the changes, Judge Falk said she had to balance the rights of campaigners to freedom of speech and assembly against UKOG’s private rights. She said there was a sufficient real and imminent risk to justify the continuation of the interim injunction.
She told the court:
“Applying the fair balance approach, I think the injunction in the revised form is appropriate.”
UKOG had argued that it was not seeking to prevent people from protesting lawfully. But its barrister, Timothy Polli QC, said:
“These protests are costing us money.”
“We have consistently said we are not trying to clobber people. We want it [these protests] to stop.”
Stephanie Harrison QC, for five women who had challenged the injunction in the courts for two-and-a-half years, said her clients had been “vindicated by the concessions now made by UKOG”.
She described earlier versions of the order as “excessive” affecting the fundamental rights of a “wider range of environmental campaigning groups and individuals”.
The injunction had now been “radically scaled back”, she said, to an orthodox injunction relating to private land and not over the public highway.
The original version was solely against “persons unknown”. It included a ban on people standing in exclusion zones on roads outside site entrances, taking photographs of contractors or combining together using lawful means to injure UKOG’s economic interests.
Since then, the courts have several times reduced the scope of UKOG’s injunction and those granted to other companies.
Trial date brought forward
At today’s hearing, Judge Falk also ordered an earlier date for a hearing to decide whether the interim injunction should be made final.
An eight-day trial had been scheduled for February 2022.
This has now been reduced to two days from June-October 2021. Judge Falk said the interim injunction should end by 31 October 2021 at the latest.
If the injunction is made final, it will mean that UKOG’s order can no longer apply to “persons unknown”.
Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled in a case involving the fashion chain Canada Goose that injunctions against persons unknown should be for limited periods only. This would be to enable the claimant to identify those against whom to bring a case for a final injunction. The appeal court said there should be no final protest injunctions against persons unknown.
Alias Facebook accounts barred
Judge Falk further ordered UKOG not to use alias Facebook accounts to give information about the injunction to protesters.
The company admitted that a security officer using a false name had sent messages to environmental campaigners.
Mrs Justice Falk told the court:
“I am not comfortable with the use of aliases.
“I do not think fake names are the right way to do this.”
She said the use of false names appeared to be against Facebook conditions. She said in future:
“Any service by Facebook has to be by direct message to individuals and not from an alias.”
Opponents of UKOG’s activities had strongly criticised the use of Facebook to give information about the injunction. Some people reported that messages and the Facebook account in the name of Richard Hill had disappeared after information was posted. There were also concerns that the information could be spam.
UKOG denied the accounts were fake and defended the use of the aliases. Mr Polli said security staff typically used aliases and it was not “improper”. Messages could not have been construed as fake, he said. They included the UKOG logo and said they contained important information. He said some individuals had been “trying to make themselves unserviceable”.
The judge also said it would helpful for UKOG to notify previous defendents that they would not be pursued. She said up-to-date notices should be displayed at Horse Hill and on UKOG’s website.
UKOG said it would not be seeking costs against any parties in the legal action.
In a statement on 10 February 2021, UKOG welcomed the judge’s review of the injunction and her decision that it was justified.
The company’s chief executive, Stephen Sanderson, said:
“UKOG has never sought to obstruct any peaceful protest, or curb the right to freedom of expression, solely to restrain unlawful activities that impede its staff’s right to go about their lawful business.
“This ruling now makes it clear that acts of trespass, obstruction of the site’s entrance and vehicle surfing do not constitute lawful protest under the right to freedom of expression. We trust that protesters will abide by this ruling.”
The statement confirmed that two members of Extinction Rebellion who took part in a protest in October 2020 had offered undertakings to abide by the terms of the injunction in return for UKOG not pursuing legal action for a breach of the injunction. Another six Extinction Rebellion members were named on the injunction.
Weald Action Group, which has supported the long-running legal challenge to the injunction, welcomed the judge’s decisions. In a statement today, the group said:
“When this injunction was served in its original format in March 2018, it included a clause to prevent campaigners ‘combining together using by lawful means’ – acts that could potentially affect the company’s ‘economic interests’.
“It also prevented campaigners ‘watching’ people. It was a shocking attack by UKOG on our right to freedom of association and the right to protest, as they clearly sought to prevent these wholly lawful acts. This was a breach of the Human Rights Act and its sweeping powers were draconian and anti-democratic.
“It has been a costly exercise for UKOG to finally concede to this new scaled back order, which is what our solicitors proposed to them back in May 2019.
“We welcome the time limit for a final injunction in the Judge’s ruling yesterday, which ensures the Persons Unknown element will be removed by November this year at the very latest. In addition UKOG, their solicitors and security company are now no longer able to create “fake” alias Facebook profiles to serve their papers to campaigners.”