Campaigners against the oil and gas industry in the South East of England took to the High Court last month to defend their right to protest against oil exploration in their area. Five local residents, including actress Sue Jameson, offered to stand as defendants against UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) who operate several sites across the Weald Basin of Surrey and Sussex. Weeks before, UKOG had served an injunction against ‘persons unknown’ which, if successful, would curtail freedom to oppose the potential industrialisation of the countryside.
The draft orders included actions already covered by criminal offences, such as trespass or criminal damage, but also mentioned the common protest tactic of ‘slow walking’, sometimes facilitated by police.
They also sought to prohibit other lawful acts by campaigners where the ‘predominant intention’ is to injure UKOG’s ‘economic interests’. But this could mean anything from talking to neighbours about the industry, handing out leaflets and sharing information online.
UKOG are building upon a similar injunction granted as an interim measure last year against local communities opposing fracking in Yorkshire – brought by the multinational petrochemical company INEOS. This is being appealed by anti-fracking campaigner Joe Boyd and Agent Provocateur founder Joe Corre who said of the UKOG case, “This is a copycat of the INEOS injunction with added bells and whistles. Make no mistake it’s a full frontal assault on our fundamental human rights to protest.
“Bringing these applications in the chancery division of the High Court which normally deals with contract disputes and does not have experience of dealing with human rights issues shows how these companies are gaming the legal system and showing contempt for the law. We will not be intimidated.”
Also supporting the campaigners at the High Court on 19th March was Bianca Jagger, President and Chief Executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (BJHRF), who called for UKOG to withdraw its application for an injunction, saying it’s, “a shameless attempt to ride roughshod over local people’s right to peaceful, lawful protest.”
She added: “I am appalled that residents of South East England are being threatened with intimidation and censorship for speaking out against the potentially irreversible damage to their way of life, their water sources, the air, and their environment by unconventional drilling operations.”
This risks bringing the ‘profit before people’ legislation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in through the back door. Dr Damien Short, Director of the Human Rights Consortium, University of London, said: “Companies are apparently seeking to protect their own interests at the expense of human rights to peaceful assembly and expression. This is deeply worrying. People’s democratic rights to resist the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry must be protected. I hope the courts start refusing such draconian, undemocratic, sweeping injunctions.”
Chief Master Marsh overseeing the case described the orders as “very wide-ranging” and “exceptional”. He said, “They have to be looked at extremely carefully,” and adjourned the case for at least six weeks to be heard by a High Court judge.
The campaign alliance Weald Action Group welcomed the outcome, saying it allowed local people to take stock without the threat of legal action against them.
Then, in a dramatic U-turn last week, UKOG announced it was dropping the most draconian part of its proposed injunction, and no longer asking to outlaw campaigners ‘combining together using lawful means where the predominant intention is to injure the claimant’s economic interests’. Plus, there is no reference in the new order to exclusion zones outside the site entrances, where previous versions wanted campaigning restricted. Markwells Wood in the South Downs has also been removed from the list of sites under the proposed injunction, leaving Broadford Bridge in Sussex, Horse Hill in Surrey, plus their headquarters in Guildford.
UKOG said it had listened to communities’ concerns and was not trying to silence lawful protest, just asking for protection solely from what it called unlawful activity. Yet locking-on and slow walking are named in the new proposed injunction as prohibited acts of civil disobedience, despite being widely-used for decades to affect change.
Lorraine Inglis for Weald Action Group, said:
“UKOG have climbed down. This is a victory for democracy. No way should a company’s economic interests trump human rights. But the revised draft still retains many elements that would severely restrict our right to legitimate protest – attempting to control activities on public highways and suggesting we are not even allowed to ‘watch’ the activities of the company and its suppliers. We shall continue to challenge them every step of the way. We can’t let what we feel are bullying tactics stifle our right to defend our environment.”
If companies are taking campaigners to court to stop lawful protest or decide what it lawful or not, our democracy really is on shaky ground. We have to stand up and oppose it.
Weald Action Group is challenging UKOG’s injunction when the case returns to the High Court. The group is launching a Crowd Justice appeal to support the legal challenge. Please get in touch if you can help on firstname.lastname@example.org