My recent encounter with our criminal justice system was extremely unsettling; the potential outcomes consumed my thoughts ahead of my final court appearance in December 2016. Facing the law and knowing that I would not have acted differently raises many questions about what ‘justice’ is and how ‘democracy’ actually functions.
The charge against me was ‘Contempt of Court’, which could have resulted in a prison sentence (I had a packed bag with me), and which resulted from my refusal to pay or engage in the process of paying legal fees of £55,000+ for an ‘eviction’ that did not physically happen.
On 7 August 2014, around 25 of us from the anti-fracking group UK Nanas had occupied an empty field where drilling firm Cuadrilla had a planning application to extract shale gas through fracking. We did this (before any drills or work began) to alert the neighbours of how close they were and of the impending risks. We made clear from the start that we would hold the field for three weeks in a land-dispute, issuing a ‘section 6’ notice commonly used for squatting. The day after we peacefully left the field, the ‘eviction’ happened. It was a paper eviction only and all costs were legal fees.
We were in court within days and told that unless someone put their name forward, videos and images could lead to blame being applied to any of us. As I have the fewest assets and responsibilities, I volunteered. A lawyer represented me without cost, but I found this frustrating; her aim (understandably) was to get me off with the least costs, whereas I wanted to challenge the abuse of justice these costs clearly represented. The costs notice said that the amount should not be used to punish or profit – £55,000 in paperwork fees clearly did both these things.
I heard nothing until I was followed in 2016 to public events in London, North Allerton and Blackpool by official paper servers (on one occasion wearing a stab vest!) with notice to appear in court to sort payment or terms to pay. Bolstered by wonderful support from fellow activists, I turned up, but wasn’t willing to be part of this misuse of our legal system and gave a statement:
“...I have huge admiration for a system of justice that is fair but I feel in this case that our law courts are not being used to seek justice but instead being applied like a weapon and a threat against peaceful protest.
“The fact that Cuadrilla has the finances, power and vindictiveness to pursue this through our courts is an abuse of one of the most valued aspects of our democracy.
“...As this case has nothing to do whatsoever with justice, I will not be complying with any requests for information or payment.
“I make this statement on behalf of myself and an entire movement who will not be bullied.”
I was charged with Contempt of Court, which was addressed in a ‘locked court’ in December 2016. I can’t talk publicly about what happened – the judge was not robed and was free to discuss aspects he wouldn’t have in open court. I had written in advance explaining my stand and this time brought a friend rather than a lawyer to accompany me. The judge appeared to understand that Cuadrilla’s relentless pursuit of me looked to be more about intimidation than justice. After a few hours, during which time Cuadrilla’s solicitor called his client a number of times, it was agreed to NOT pursue me for charges unless, as the judge said, I come into a ‘lottery win’ – and even then, I could again contest Cuadrilla’s case. The judge did not make me fill in financial paperwork, only asking me to swear all I had said was true... I did, and he said: “Contempt charges dropped.”
This experience, I felt, was more about deterring activism than seeking justice. We are still battling Cuadrilla here in Blackpool, and again, trade union and other laws are being used against us – not in the way intended, but to deny our right to protest. The police are growing more heavy-handed, we are growing more frustrated and the situation grows more concerning each day. Westminster overturned our council’s rejection of Cuadrilla’s plans for these fields, adding to the impression that the people’s voice in our ‘democracy’ doesn’t count (unless you want rid of a wind turbine!).