In July last year Ineos, which describes itself as “Britain’s largest privately owned company”, obtained High Court injunctions directed at “persons unknown”, that pre-emptively prevented anyone from protesting at their fracking sites or corporate headquarters. The temporary injunction warned those who broke it that they could be put in prison, have their assets seized or be fined.
This hearing was ex-parte – with only Ineos and the landowners who lease their land to Ineos represented. No anti-fracking protests aimed at Ineos had actually taken place, so the evidence the multi-national company presented to the judge, according to those familiar with the case, came from social media documentation of protests held against the fracking operations of competitors like IGas and Cuadrilla.
“We have a duty to do all we can to ensure the safety of everyone on and around our sites, including the protesters themselves”, Ineos’s Tom Pickering said at the time, but up to that point no-one’s safety had been threatened. All Ineos seemed to be showing was tweets and videos of fracking protests.
“The whole point of injunctions is that they are meant to be specific – that you can show a specific threat or danger”, Rosa Curling, a human rights and public law solicitor at Leigh Day told me.
“We don’t think it was an accurate description in relation to risk”, says Curling. “Our laws do recognise that there should be a peaceful and lawful way to cause some disruption – there is a recognition that civil society has that role.”
At that hearing last summer, the judge granted Ineos a temporary injunction, effectively ruling that the potential for “economic disruption” to the company’s fracking operations overruled the implications for people’s democratic right to protest what they believe is wrong. A pre-emptive strike against “persons unknown” – i.e. anyone and everyone – is something Curling describes as “a really sinister new development”.
A few months later, in May this year, Ineos’s CEO Jim Ratcliffe topped the Sunday Times Rich List. The chemical firm’s founder, who once lived in a council house in Manchester, is worth an estimated £21 billion. He is Britain’s richest man.
A month after that, he was knighted. A Brexit backer, in 2015, Ratcliffe said that, “The Brits are perfectly capable of managing the Brits and don’t need Brussels telling them how to manage things.” Sir Jim then decided, in August this year, to leave the UK and go and live in Monaco, where residents don’t pay income tax.
Companies know that effective protesting cannot only severely disrupt their operations but can also make them look bad. This has been the case with fracking, which, thanks in large part to the concerted efforts of activists, is now deeply unpopular in Britain.
Last summer, government research found that support for fracking was at a record low. But the injunction set a precedent. Already, companies other than Ineos are using the injunction to handle their own problems with activists – with the judgement cited to secure convictions for lock-on protests that have nothing to do with Ineos – and the issues go far beyond fracking into any number of potentially controversial operations.
Joe Boyd has been aware of this from the start. Now in his forties, Joe Boyd is from Merseyside and still lives in the north-west. He’s been an anti-fracking activist for five years, while also studying environmental science with the Open University.
Without access to legal aid, which has been stripped back to its bare bones in the UK, Boyd is crowdfunding an appeal against Ineos’s injunction on the site CrowdJustice. Curling is one of his lawyers, saying that she is pretty sure Ineos’s injunction “is the first of its kind”.
He tells me he used to be an addict – gambling, mostly – and that he nearly died in 2012. Three years earlier, his brother John had been stabbed to death in the street. “I’ve already been dead, as far as I’m concerned”, Boyd says. “I’ve got nothing to lose and the people have everything to gain”.
Boyd has camped for months on end to protest proposed fracking sites and has made particular use of a protesting tactic known as “slow walking”, where campaigners try to delay deliveries to oil and gas companies by walking in front of lorries. In July this year, the exploration company UK Oil and Gas told the high court in London that slow walking protests are “unreasonable and wrong”.
An Ineos spokesperson, referring to last July’s ruling, told me, “the judge at the time also said that it was important to recognise that the injunctions do nothing to prevent anyone effectively exercising their right to freedom of expression. He noted that people are free to express their opinions, but not to carry out unlawful acts”.
Boyd disagrees. “Without doubt it’s awful – it’s off the Richter scale”, he says of the injunction. “It stops everything. The only thing it doesn’t stop is writing to your MP. If we don’t overturn it, democracy is absolutely finished in this country”. For seven years, anti-fracking activists have had “great success”, says Boyd. But that success has come from being radical. “You can’t have change by signing a petition”, he tells me.
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade, highlights the impact that injunctions like Ineos’s have on other industries: "This draconian action is part of a bigger picture which has seen big business and the state cracking down on protest and dissent”, he told me. “This is an issue for all of us. These methods can be used against anyone, whether it is by Ineos, by arms companies or by any other powerful interests.
Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protect the right to freedom of expression and information and freedom of assembly and association. These articles will be at the heart of Boyd’s appeal, which is set to take place in the New Year.
It’s an appeal that comes at a crucial time for Britain’s democracy and its energy policy. On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that warned of dire consequences for the world unless significant political and societal action was taken. At the same time, private companies are trying to stamp out the protests which could push the government to take that action.