Netpol’s Activist Legal Action Fund “crucial” to UKOG legal challenge

UKOG hearing

PHOTO: Netpol

A sweeping injunction sought by shale oil and gas company UKOG against campaigners in south-east England looks like it has run into difficulties since it was challenged in court in March

The draft orders, originally made against “persons unknown”, attempted to prohibit a wide range of actions, including “combining together using lawful means” if that was intended to interfere with the company’s “economic interests”. The threat of expensive legal action against local campaigners if they breached such a sweeping order is a potentially significant threat to their rights to oppose and protest against the company’s plans.

A preliminary hearing on 19 March at the High Court in London was adjourned for six weeks, however, after five campaigners came forward to challenge the injunction. This was possible because initial advice from the solicitors’ firm Bhatt Murphy and Stephanie Harrison QC from Garden Court Chambers was paid for by Netpol’s Activist Legal Action Fund.

The Fund provides financial support for anti-fracking campaign groups – in this case, Weald Action Group – to access this kind of specialist civil legal advice if they are faced with the threat of a legal challenge by the onshore oil and gas industry. This covers not only the threat of injunctions but also possession orders to evict protectors camps and allegations of defamation by companies against campaign groups’ newsletters or publicity.

Anti-fracking groups are able to seek financial support from the Fund through their solicitors.

it was crucial that we could access to expert legal advice immediately.

Offering resources for prompt legal support so campaigners were able to decide whether to challenge UKOG was vital because it appeared the company was hoping nobody would take the unnerving decision to step forward.

Despite lawyers representing the company insisting the proposed injunction was a “standard application” that the court could deal with in one day, however, Chancery Chief Master Matthew Marsh said, “these are very wide-ranging orders to be served and they are exceptional orders”. A High Court judge will preside over the future hearing, which is expected to last for three days.

Lorraine Inglis of Weald Action Group said, “it was crucial that we could access to expert legal advice immediately. Oil and gas companies know costs are a huge barrier for local campaigners wanting to challenge them in court, but having support straight away from Michael Oswald at Bhatt Murphy, rather than looking around for a solicitors firm to help us, meant we were able to effectively focus on how best to ensure UKOG’s injunction is fiercely resisted.”

No access to land covered by proposed injunction

Since the first hearing, UKOG’s case for restricting the rights of protesters at two of the three sites named in the draft orders seems to have weakened considerably.

At Markwells Wood, near Rowlands Castle in Hampshire, it has emerged that the company’s access to the site was terminated by the landowner eight months ago, because of an “an unacceptable risk to the water supply and public health of hundreds of thousands of Portsmouth residents.” UKOG has had no planning permission in place for 18 months and just five days before it appeared at the High Court, the South Downs National Park Authority ordered it to restore the site back to woodland.

It is extremely difficult to see what “economic interests” the company was, therefore, trying to protect at Markwells Wood when it presented its case to the High Court.

At a second site named in the draft orders, at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex, UKOG has subsequently announced that it has also been forced to suspend its well. The company has said its focus is on Horse Hill in Surrey, where there was a sustained campaign of opposition in 2016.

Netpol is monitoring the next stages of the proposed UKOG injunction and attending the forthcoming hearing.

You can donate to the Activist Legal Action Fund here.