An environmental group has been forced to withdraw its legal challenge to a wide-ranging injunction by the fracking firm Cuadrilla after being “priced out of court”.
Three fracking protesters are facing court action after the energy company obtained the injunction restricting protests at its shale gas exploration site in Lancashire.
The protesters, Katrina Lawrie, 41, Christopher Wilson, 55, and Lee Walsh, 44, were due to be supported by Friends of the Earth (FoE) in their bid to vary the terms of the injunction order.
However, the environmental group said it has been frozen out of court proceedings after a high court judge refused to grant any costs protection.
FoE had applied for financial protection on the basis that it was a public interest litigant.
In environmental judicial reviews, a cap on legal costs is available and cost protection may also be obtained in non-environmental judicial reviews.
However, a high court judge ruled that cost protection was unavailable on the basis that the case was private litigation between private parties.
This meant if FoE lost the case it could face an £85,000 legal bill. The group said this was a financial risk it could not afford.
The FoE campaigner Dave Timms said: “This ruling is a blow for civil liberties and access to justice.
“The public’s right to peacefully protest has been severely and unlawfully restricted by Cuadrilla’s injunction – we should be allowed to challenge it without facing huge financial penalties.
“We are effectively being priced out of justice. The cost ruling means that the rights of the wider public, who might be caught by disproportionate injunctions against persons unknown, cannot be represented in court by public interest organisations without taking on huge financial risk.”
The trio had locked their arms inside tubes in a protest in the site entrance on 24 July last year. The action prevented lorries getting in or out of the site for about six-and-a-half hours.
Judge Pelling had granted the injunction to Cuadrilla in June 2018. It outlawed specific types of protest, as well as obstruction at the site, trespass and conspiracy to delay or cause inconvenience against Cuadrilla or its contractors.
Before the sentencing is carried out at the high court in Manchester on Monday, the protesters are applying to vary the injunction which, if successful, may impact on their sentence.
Last month, a large tremor caused houses to shake near Preston New Road, the UK’s only active fracking site. The 2.9-magnitude quake is believed to be the biggest fracking-related tremor seen in Britain.
Stephanie Harrison QC, who was due to represent FoE, warned the ruling set a dangerous precedent and called for an urgent review.
She said: “Private companies deploying their superior resources and financial might to utilise court proceedings to prevent and deter peaceful protest through pursing draconian injunctions is a serious threat to our civil liberties.
“An urgent review of the use of civil proceedings to regulate free speech and peaceful protest and the implications of these proceedings for access to justice and equality before the law is urgently required.”