12 people, including three councillors, have been found guilty of obstructing the highway after a lock-on protest outside Cuadrilla’s shale gas site in July. But they were cleared of trades union charges which can carry a more serious penalty. The verdict, given by District Judge Jeff Brailsford, this morning followed a trial earlier this week at Blackpool Magistrates Court. [pic by Kirsten Buus]
The protesters included Lancashire County Councillor Gina Dowding, Fylde Borough Councillor Julie Brickles and Kirkham Town Councillor Miranda Cox. They were joined in the lock-on by other local residents Sara Boyle, Barbara Cookson, Nick Danby, Daniel Huxley-Blythe, Catherine Jackson, Michelle Martin, Alana McCullough, Jeanette Porter and Nick Sheldrick. All 12 denied the offences against them. They were each given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay costs and surcharge totalling £270.
The court had heard evidence that the protesters locked themselves together outside Cuadrilla’s site on Preston New Road at about 3am on 3 July 2017. Eight of the group were released and arrested between about 11.30am and 5.30pm. The remainder, except for Miss Martin, were arrested that evening. Miss Martin was arrested the following day.
In his verdict, District Judge Brailsford said there needed to be a balance between the rights of the protesters and other people. He said thousands of local people had been inconvenienced by traffic delays. “I look at the alternative actions that those protesters could have taken up – breaking off earlier, self-releasing. They did none of those things. The disruption continued for hours. My issue therefore is whether that was unreasonable or whether there was lawful excuse for the extent and duration of the protest.
“There were, I am satisfied, other measures open to these defendants which they did not take. The consequences of their intransigence was obstruction to the highway which was in my judgement overall unarguably unreasonable. For those reasons and on the evidence presented I find that each of these defendants is guilty of the charged offence of obstructing the highway.”
The judge the duration of a protest was not “all-determinative”. But he said “I have previously offered the view eight hours was “at the very outer edge of what might be capable of being accepted as being ‘reasonable’, particularly where the protest had been facilitated for over four hours by that time”.
The protesters had also been charged under section 241 of the Trades Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act. On this charge, Judge Brailsford said because the protest was on the highway there had been no trespass on Cuadrilla’s land. He also said the company had not provided evidence that its operation had been hindered. “I see no evidence of civil wrong. I do not know whether, for example, any delivery was scheduled for that day, what such delivery might have been, and how it would form part of Cuadrilla’s work or working practices.”
He said it would have been “fairly simple” to get this evidence. “I am in no doubt, in those circumstances, that the Crown has failed to prove the elements of the S241 offence to the requisite standard. That charge in relation to each defendant is accordingly dismissed.”