William Rose, Partner at Sharpe Pritchard LLP, has successfully acted for Thurrock Council and Essex County Council in obtaining a ‘first of its kind’ injunction against individuals connected with the protest group Just Stop Oil.
The Court’s verdict confirms that local authorities are empowered to prevent blockages of the highway in their administrative areas by seeking injunctive relief.
Just Stop Oil – a protest group demanding the cessation of fossil fuel production in the UK – undertook a series of coordinated protests between 1 – 15 April 2022. Prior to the protests, activists promised to stop “government doing what they shouldn’t be” by blocking access to and egress from oil terminals across the country. Many of these protests took place in and around Thurrock and wider Essex, there being four large terminals. Essex Police duly made over 460 arrests in connection with the protest activity.
The underlying causes of action were trespass and public nuisance. The claim was brought under s222 Local Government Act 1972 and s130 Highways Act 1980.
S222 of the 1972 Act provides that local authorities may:
“…prosecute or defend or appear in any legal proceedings and, in the case of civil proceedings, may institute them in their own name…”
In brief, s130 of the 1980 Act provides that highway authorities have a duty to i) protect the right of the public to use any highway; and ii) prevent the stopping up or obstruction of the highways. Further, without prejudice to their powers under s222 of the 1972 Act above, a council may:
“…institute legal proceedings in their own name, defend any legal proceedings and generally take such steps as they deem expedient.”
Thurrock Council and Essex County Council are the relevant Highway Authorities and therefore have a statutory duty to restrict the unlawful protest activity.
Terms of the injunction
The injunction itself contains 18 prohibitions restricting the ability of named and unnamed protestors to obstruct a set list of roads in Thurrock and on Canvey Island. There are 222 named Defendants, only one of whom was represented. The list of named Defendants was compiled from a list of those arrested during the course of the protests. There are also seven categories of ‘Persons Unknown’, HHJ Simon accepting that the Claimants were permitted to seek injunctive relief against the groups of Persons Unknown (each defined by the acts to be restrained as unlawful (in accordance with Barking and Dagenham)). The Court was satisfied that the Defendants could be dealt with as a “broad-based composite”, rather than assessing the conduct of each individual tortfeasor, as each Defendant’s actions were “intended to contribute to the goal of an alliance”.
Service on named Defendants is achieved by usual means (by post, electronic communications and through correspondence with solicitors). Service on Persons Unknown is achieved by i) uploading relevant documents to the Claimants’ websites and Facebook pages; and ii) placing signs around Thurrock and the terminals publicising a QR code (redirecting users to digital versions of the documents) and the following message:
“PROTESTING ON THE HIGHWAY IS SUBJECT TO RESTRICTIONS AND THERE ARE SITES PROTECTED BY THE INJUNCTION”
These differing methods of service are necessary “to ensure that the existence of the injunction is made known to anyone whom it might affect…”.
Counsel for the 63rd Defendant argued that the list of roads was unduly long and complex but HHJ Simon found the list was “necessarily” long to “provide clarity to the protesters”.
Attached to the Order is a Power of Arrest pursuant to s27 Police and Justice Act 2006, allowing the police to arrest an individual reasonably suspected to be in breach of the Order. HHJ Simon was persuaded that the injunction risked being undermined in the absence of such power.
The injunction clearly engages Article 10 and 11 rights, those being the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association respectively. However, the measures taken by the Claimants in interference with those rights are “both necessary and proportionate”. The Court was satisfied that there are no less restrictive means of achieving the Claimants’ aim.
The outcome of Thurrock v Adams will be of interest to local authorities. Recent years have seen a spike in disruptive protest activity, with the likes of Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and now Just Stop Oil targeting the strategic road network. Not only is such protest activity extremely disruptive to residents, public resource (financial and otherwise) and local businesses, it also imposes a statutory duty on the relevant Highway Authority to act.
Local authorities now have a precedent to follow when seeking to quell unlawful protest activity on the highways. Prohibitory injunctive relief against named Defendants and/or Persons Unknown on a clearly defined set of roads is attainable.
Of course, the terms on which any such injunctive relief is sought will need to be tailored to each individual case. Particular attention should be paid to the following:
- Causes of action;
- List of named Defendants;
- Clearly defined groups of Persons Unknown;
- Unambiguous geographical boundaries;
- Clear and lawful prohibitions; and
- Feasible means of bringing the injunction to the attention of necessary persons.
Sharpe Pritchard has considerable experience obtaining injunctions against both named and unnamed Defendants in the protest context and elsewhere. Local authorities considering an application for injunctive relief should seek expert legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity.
 London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and others v Persons Unknown  EWCA Civ 13
William Rose is a Partner and Privy Council Agent and Oliver Slater is a Trainee Solicitor at Sharpe Pritchard LLP.
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