Oil and gas companies' use of injunctions "a threat to our civil liberties"

Thursday 17 January 2019

Parliamentarians, lawyers and campaigners joined forces on 16 January to warn about the growing threat to civil liberties from injunctions against campaigners who protest against fracking, oil and gas companies.

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The packed ‘Injunctions Injustice’ event at the Houses of Parliament – organised by Garden Court Chambers, Friends of the Earth, Liberty, Frack Free United and Talk Fracking – came ahead of Court of Appeal challenges in the coming months to injunctions granted to UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) and Ineos Shale against protest activity targeted at their sites and their companies. Ineos is owned by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, which aims to become a leading fracking company.

The court granted Ineos a wide-ranging injunction to prevent various types of protest at sites in which it has an interest. The court made an injunction based on allegations of unlawful interference with business, a novel and developing tort, which Ineos say covers their suppliers. This means the injunction has huge territorial effect. The injunction was sought before the company had even begun any fracking activities.

The proceedings were brought, effectively, in secret against ‘Persons Unknown’ – meaning people face being in contempt of court despite not being involved in the case – without any actual evidence of wrongdoing. It was only when warning notices started appearing on land in North Derbyshire and Sheffield that campaigners became aware of the injunction.

Public Law and Civil Liberties barrister, Stephanie Harrison QC of Garden Court Chambers has been representing a number of defendants engaged in protests against UKOG and Ineos and will be representing the defendants in the Court of Appeal challenge against Ineos, set to be heard in court from 5th to 7th March 2019.

She said:

“These injunctions have serious implications for the many individuals and groups who wish to continue to exercise their rights to free speech, assembly and association as part of long-standing locally based campaigns against the adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration for the environment, the climate and their local communities.”

She said it appeared that powerful corporate firms were increasingly attempting to restrict freedom of speech and assembly, and also bypass the local police. They aimed to prevent many forms of lawful protest by threatening injunctions, imprisonment for breach of those injunctions and also the risk of damages and excessive legal costs.

Stephanie Harrison QC added:

“People have fought hard for the right to free speech. The attack on this fundamental right by oil and gas companies is a matter of grave concern.”

Friends of the Earth are co-defendants in the UKOG case and have applied to intervene in the INEOS case. Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth head of political affairs said:

“The growing use of injunctions by the oil and gas industry against ‘persons unknown’ is a sinister new strategy in response to widespread opposition to their plans. These draconian injunctions go far wider than covering already illegal actions. They create a climate of fear where people taking lawful protest are uncertain about whether their actions could breach an injunction; with the risk of imprisonment or having their assets seized.

“We believe that these injunctions are wrong in principle and in law. We are now looking to the Court of Appeal to uphold our long-established rights to freedom of expression and assembly, which are under serious threat.”

Joe Corré, one of the defendants in the Ineos case, told attendees:

“These injunctions, started by Ineos, are a full-frontal assault on our civil liberties. By gaming the British legal system and using secret courts, these companies are buying the law.”

Vicki Elcoate, a member of the Weald Action Group and a defendant in a similar injunction won by UK Oil and Gas over sites in Surrey and Sussex, spoke about her experiences, adding:

“At a time when the government is seeking to fast track fracking and take decisions out of the hands of local authorities, it’s even more important that local communities have a voice.

“Across the South East, oil companies are pursuing a programme of extreme extraction using unconventional methods like acidisation. These far-reaching injunctions are being used by these companies to silence dissent. The law shouldn’t be there to protect the oil and gas companies against the overwhelming opposition of the people to this threat to industrialise the countryside and pollute our environment.”

Steve Mason of Frack Free United said:

“This event has reflected the huge amount of concern of these draconian injunctions. In this current political climate, I am encouraged by the fact that we had representation of all the English parliamentary parties at the event and the SNP, which shows there is a real political willingness and cooperation to oppose the threat to basic rights and to fracking as a whole.”

Stephanie Harrison QC is a member of the Garden Court Chambers Public Law Team.

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