“Dissent is not a crime”.
That is the battle cry of a group of six women campaigners defending their right to protest against a fossil fuel company which sought a wide-ranging injunction to restrict direct action at drilling sites.
Known locally as the “Surrey and Sussex Six”, the campaigners backed by Friends of the Earth opposed an injunction issued by UK Oil and Gas (UKOG), a company which plans to develop onshore oil drilling in the south east of England.
The injunction, which was described by campaigners as “draconian” and an attempt to stifle free speech and peaceful protest, was scaled back by a judge in the High Court on Monday but still granted to UKOG.
The decision was greeted with mixed reactions by activists who are seeking to appeal the court’s decision.
“It seems to me like anyone with money can take out an injunction to protect its commercial interests,” said Jacqui Hamlin (second from right in the picture), one of the six defendants in the High Court case against UKOG.
“People have been frightened into silence — what sort of society is that?”
“The right to protest and assemble is a cornerstone of our democracy. If the suffragettes had protested in a manner that was acceptable to the authorities, would anything have changed?,” she asked.
Warning about the impact of such injunctions of people’s rights to protest and to free speech, three of the campaigners who fought the injunction told DeSmog UK about their hopes and fears for the future of their campaign.
The injunction, which is addressed to “persons unknown” — an all-encompassing term used in a similar injunction granted to leading fracking company INEOS last year — was the most far-reaching in a series of similar court orders sought by onshore oil drilling and fracking companies over the past 12 months.
Although the most restrictive clauses were removed, the injunction outlaws a range of direct actions in order to protect UKOG’s commercial interests. This includes a ban on obstructing the entrances of the sites at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex and Horse Hill in Surrey as well as the highway leading to them, slow walking in front of vehicles, targeting contractors and blocking vehicles coming in and out of the sites.
But the judge reduced the scope of the injunction from four to two sites and excluded UKOG’s head office in Guilford. He also refused to grant the injunction against those “instructing or encouraging” protest, which could have acted as a blanket ban on publicising and promoting protest activities — fearing this would impede on free speech.
Language referring to those “watching” the site was also excluded from the injunction on the basis this could be an attempt to prevent people protesting outside the sites or monitoring the company’s activities, which are both lawful.
For Hamlin, the judge’s decision to grant the injunction to UKOG has opened up more questions than answers.
“The law is there to be respected and we respect the law,” she said, adding: “But I don’t do legal jargon very well and I am finding this very worrying.”
Hamlin said the injunction was complex and did not clearly set-out what opponents to UKOG could and couldn’t do but instead created a raft of legal details that campaigners would have to carefully analyse and understand in order to avoid breaching the court’s order.
“There will be people who will be too afraid of taking part in any more protests by fear or breaching the injunction and others like me who might get into situations without realising this breach some part of the injunction,” she said.
Vicki Elcoate (second from left in the picture), of Dorking, another member of the “Surrey and Sussex Six”, agreeds Describing herself as a seasoned activist, Elcoate, a Green party member, said the injunction “allowed some forms of protests and restricted others” and that campaigners will need time to understand what the ruling means in practice.
“The decision to grant the injunction remains very chilling for protesters because breaching an injunction is a very serious matter which can be punished by a significant fine or even a prison sentence. This is a real dissentive to protest,” she said.
Hamlin knows about the risks of protest.
In January 2017, she was arrested in Brockham, near UKOG’s Horse Hill site in Surrey, for slow walking and obstructing a lorry. Charges were eventually dropped but the memory of that day has stuck with her.
“Spending 14 hours in a cell is certainly no piece of cake and I don’t think anyone is prepared for that,” she told DeSmog UK. But despite the risks, Hamlin is not ready to give up just yet.
“I would certainly like to appeal the injunction. If it is legally robust, it should stand up to a bit of challenge — only what is flimsy will fall through,” she said.
‘Clamp down strategy’
A retired deputy head-teacher, Ann Stewart (third from left in the picture), became involved in the campaign against UKOG’s activities when the company put in a planning application to drill under the South Downs National Park at Markwells Wood near Chichester in West Sussex.
Although UKOG withdrew its application in May last year, Markwells Wood was included in the injunction despite the fact no direct action has ever taken place at the site.
“UKOG has pretended it was faced with an extremely dedicated campaign and lots of people ready to take direct action at the Markwells Wood site, but that is far removed from the reality here,” Stewart said.
“This was a sign of their efforts to suppress any effective opposition,” she added.
Elcoate said UKOG’s injunction was more evidence of the oil and gas industry’s willingness “to clamp down on protests and any opposition to its activities”.
“These injunctions are becoming more and more restrictive.They have become part of a strategy for some companies. But peaceful protest is a legitimate part of the democratic process,” she added.
“The government has said it was pro-fracking. But companies have no social licence to carry out these activities which are deeply unpopular. I think the government should go back to the drawing board. All that money and energy could be directed to promote a green, low-carbon economy rather than promote fossil fuels.”
The judge’s ruling on the injunction brought predictably contrasting responses from campaigners and the company.
In a statement, UKOG chief executive Stephen Sanderson, said he was pleased the judgement “firmly upholds the company’s collective human, legal and democratic right to conduct its lawful business without hindrance from the unlawful actions of activists whose intent is to cause physical, psychological and financial harm to our company, staff, contractors, supply chain and local residents.”
He warned that UKOG will seek “swift and appropriate redress from the High Court against activists who openly breach the injunction”.
He said the injunction “did not seek in any way to remove the right to peaceful protest, freedom of assembly, or freedom of expression” and that “those who wish to assemble and express their views peacefully and lawfully outside our sites will remain free to do so, as they have always been able to do”.
The campaigners certainly have no plans to give up their fight.
Commenting on the news of the injunction, the Weald Action Group, an umbrella network of organisations fighting against onshore oil drilling and fracking in the south east of England, said they were “going to fight on.”
“We do not believe that powerful private companies should be able to use the law to silence and intimidate campaigners concerned about the dangers and damage to the environment and our communities”.
“Oil companies cannot be allowed to set the legal framework for protest in this way.”
Image: Defendants in the UKOG injunction case (left to right): Constance Whiston; Vicki Elcoate; Ann Stewart; Sue Jameson; Jacqui Hamlin; Natasha Doane