Environmental protestors have long made a purposeful nuisance of themselves in the hope that the cost of policing that activities will deter organisations from engaging in activities they don’t like – such as, for example, fracking. But a high court bid to block exploration for oil at a potential fracking site in Sussex has been turned down by the judge, who ruled that such actions are a misuse of the right of protest and threaten the rule of law. (h/t Bishop Hill)
Anti-fracking group Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association (FFBRA) had appealed to the High Court to turn down planning permission, granted by West Sussex County Council, for Cuadrilla to carry out exploratory drilling in the sleepy village. The village had sprung to the forefront earlier this year, as over 1000 protestors flocked to the village to prevent Cuadrilla from carrying out its activities. The Green MP Caroline Lucas was arrested during the course of the protests.
Lawyers for FFBRA attempted to argue, amongst other things, that the County Council had not taken the cost of policing the protests into consideration when granting permission for the drilling to go ahead.
The Council’s lawyers countered by arguing that “it is wrong in principle for a statutory authority to be influenced in deciding whether or not to permit lawful activities by the prospect of others seeking to protest against it and, in the course of such protests, acting unlawfully” – an argument that the judge, Mr Justice Gilbert, accepted.
The judge ruled that “what was really being argued here … was that the County Council should take into account the cost of dealing with the activities of those who disagree with their decision, and were and are prepared to misuse the right to protest to do so.
“In my judgment, had it [done so], WSCC would have had regard to an immaterial consideration and would have acted unlawfully.”
He concluded “I therefore reject this ground, which to my mind has not the slightest merit.”
Speaking more generally, he warned that surrendering to unlawful pressure groups was a sure fire way to do away with the rule of law altogether, saying “One thread runs consistently throughout all the case law: the recognition that public authorities must beware of surrendering to the dictates of unlawful pressure groups. The implications of such surrender for the rule of law can hardly be exaggerated.”
Overall, he ruled that the County Council was right to give permission for what is, after all, a legal activity, encouraged through national policy, and therefore rejected the claim for judicial review. FFBRA was ordered to pay £10,000 in costs.