A fracking protester’s sentence has been reduced by the court of appeal, which said greater leniency should be shown in convictions for non-violent civil disobedience.
Katrina Lawrie, 41, was found guilty of contempt of court in June last year for breaching an injunction that banned trespassers blocking access to the energy firm Cuadrilla’s site on Preston New Road in Lancashire.
On Thursday, Lawrie’s suspended prison sentence was reduced from two months to four weeks, after the court ruled her human rights were not taken fully into account by a judge.
Passing the ruling, Lord Justice Leggatt said greater clemency should be given in response to acts of civil disobedience than in dealing with other acts of unlawful disobedience.
“A person who engages in acts of civil disobedience establishes a moral difference between herself and ordinary law-breakers which it is right to take into account in determining what punishment is deserved,” he added.
“The fact that such a protester is generally – apart from their protest activity – a law-abiding citizen, there is reason to expect that less severe punishment is necessary to deter such a person from further law-breaking.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a way of extracting natural gas from shale rock formations that are often deep underground. It involves pumping water, chemicals and usually sand underground at high pressure to fracture shale – hence the name – and release the gas trapped within to be collected back at the surface.
The technology has transformed the US energy landscape in the last decade, owing to the combination of high-volume fracking – 1.5m gallons of water per well, on average – and the relatively modern ability to drill horizontally into shale after a vertical well has been drilled.
In England, the government placed a moratorium on fracking in November 2019 after protests, legal challenges and planning rejections. A year earlier, the energy company Cuadrilla was forced to stop work at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire twice in four days due to minor earthquakes occurring while it was fracking. The tremors breached a seismic threshold imposed after fracking caused minor earthquakes at a nearby Cuadrilla site in 2011. In March 2019 the high court ruled that the government's fracking guidelines were unlawful because they had failed to sufficiently consider scientific evidence against fracking.
Lawrie, who had camped at the Little Plumpton site near Blackpool for two years, was sentenced in September after taking part in a “lock-on” protest in July 2018.
Her fellow protesters Chris Wilson and Lee Walsh were both given a four-week suspended sentence. Lawrie was given a longer sentence because she had also stood in front of a delivery lorry on two separate occasions.
However, the court of appeal ruled that despite her “complete lack of contrition”, Lawrie’s imprisonment was not justified and the appropriate penalty should be the same as for the contempt committed by the other campaigners.
Lord Justice Underhill, also presiding over the hearing, said: “The court attach great weight to the right of peaceful protest, even where this causes disruption to others.”
The campaigners had applied to have key parts of the injunction obtained by Cuadrilla – which also prohibited protesters from “conspiring to interfere with the supply chain” by preventing trucks from entering the site – removed. However, in December, the company itself applied to withdraw those parts of the injunction.
The court also granted permission for the protesters to appeal against the finding in the original case that they should pay Cuadrilla’s legal fees – which could be in the region of £70,000.
They will argue at a hearing in the coming weeks that the ruling breaches their human right to a fair trial and access to the courts.
A further argument that Lawrie, Walsh and Wilson should not have been convicted because an anti-protest injunction imposed on the site was too vague was rejected by the court.
Cuadrilla was forced to stop work at the site in November, weeks before the licence was due to expire, after a scientific study warned it was not possible to rule out “unacceptable” consequences for those living near fracking sites.