Oil company granted reduced injunction amid free speech concerns
A judgment was issued in the High Court this morning in the high-profile case of environmental defenders who challenged an attempt by the fossil fuel industry to obtain a wide-ranging injunction to restrict peaceful protest at sites in Surrey and Sussex. While the Court did grant an injunction, it was much less wide-ranging than the one originally sought.
The injunction, sought by UK Oil and Gas, which drew accusations of a draconian legal attempt to stifle free speech and protest, was challenged by six local women from Surrey and Sussex  and Friends of the Earth.
The Judge granted the injunction against protests at two of its drilling sites, Broadford Bridge and Horse Hill. Controversially, as with a similar injunction granted to INEOS last year, it will apply to ‘persons unknown’ rather than specific, named individuals or groups.
However, the Judge did not grant UKOG an injunction relating to their head office in Guildford, ruling that the company had failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify an injunction. The Judgment also refused to grant the injunction against those “instructing or encouraging” protest and direct action, with the Judge citing Friends of the Earth’s concerns that this would have a chilling effect on free speech. The Judge also refused to include in the injunction language referring to those “watching” the site, agreeing with Friends of the Earth and the other Defendants that this could have been interpreted as an attempt to prevent people protesting outside the site or monitoring activities at the site, both of which are lawful.
The Judge also ruled that UKOG could not provide sufficient evidence of a threat to justify an injunction against damage to their equipment, theft or threatening or abusive behaviour.
However, the peaceful and common tactic of ‘slow walking’ in front of lorries delivering to and from sites is to be included in the injunction. Some police forces have allowed and even facilitated this form of protest at fracking and drilling sites and some protesters who have engaged in slow walking have been acquitted by the courts.
Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, and who provided a witness statement for the case, said:
“It’s good news that UKOG has failed to secure the wide-ranging injunction it originally sought but we still regard the injunction that has been granted by the Court as a draconian, unjustified, and serious threat to the right to protest. We are seeking permission to take this to the Court of Appeal.
“However, we very much welcome the substantial reductions in the injunction’s scope in direct response to evidence given by Friends of the Earth.
“We are proud to have been able to join this case as a defendant alongside the six local women who courageously came forward to stop UKOG’s attempt to stifle free speech and peaceful protest. While UKOG have suffered a set-back today, we remain concerned that the injunction granted has far-reaching consequences for free speech, so this isn’t over yet. Friends of the Earth will continue to fight the growing use of anti-protest injunctions by the oil and gas industry.”
Commenting on costs, Dave Timms concluded:
“It’s clear that we made a positive impact on the legal proceedings – as demonstrated by the Judge’s provisional view that we shouldn’t have to make any contribution to UKOG’s costs.”
“Nevertheless, we fear that this injunction could put significant restrictions in place in respect of peoples’ right to protest on the highway, especially in relation to ‘slow walking’ protests. We are also very concerned that it has been granted against ‘persons unknown’.”
The judge also favourably cited evidence given by Friends of the Earth when deciding to reject UKOG’s attempt to include those who ‘encourage’ protest against fossil fuels within the scope of the injunction.