On Monday 13 September 2021, 92 Insulate Britain supporters mustered every ounce of courage they had to sit in front of the traffic on the country’s busiest road: the M25. Their bravery was driven by outrage at the government’s criminal disregard for the public: despite speaking fine words, politicians were refusing to lift a finger to protect people from climate breakdown and fuel poverty.
By sitting down on the motorway, these Insulate Britain supporters channelled their rage into a time-honoured technique of civil resistance: peaceful disruption. Their simple, winnable demand was an absolute no-brainer: insulate Britain’s cold, leaky homes now to save lives, cut energy bills and reduce the country’s reliance on climate-wrecking fossil fuels.
Weaponisation of civil law via injunctions
Having trained in nonviolence, the supporters were fully aware they would face criminal proceedings – and were ready to accept these legal consequences as a way they could bring the injustice of our system to light. But they had no idea that the state and its partners had another weapon in store: injunctions (private orders to stop people from entering designated infrastructure or property).
These came swiftly. After the M25 actions began, the establishment hit back fast. The Daily Mail spat venom at Insulate Britain, whipping up public anger and demanding the police crack down. Priti Patel obliged by calling an emergency meeting of police chiefs. And under immense pressure from the home secretary, National Highways took out an injunction to prevent further action on the motorway on 21 September.
A game of cat and mouse ensued, with supporters for Insulate Britain, and later Just Stop Oil, dodging the injunction to take action elsewhere. As they did so, further injunctions were taken out: Transport for London (TfL), Thurrock Council, Warwickshire Borough Council and the Essex Navigator Terminal have all taken out injunctions in an attempt to block climate action.
Many supporters defiantly broke these injunctions and went to prison for it: 50 on the same day in September 2022. But even those supporters who chose not to break them have experienced harsh consequences.
Judith Bruce’s story
One of these is Judith Bruce, 84, from Swansea. A retired teacher, Judith despaired of the usual methods of peaceful protest, such as contacting MPs, petitions; colourful marches and events to make people aware. As she explained:
“Opposed by powerful lobbying that’s backed by vast sums of money, ordinary citizens have no chance of being heard. The only way is to get the media involved, and the only way to do that is to cause annoyance and controversy. The price we pay is what you’ve seen: most of the media love to stoke discord and outrage.
“I was prepared for arrest, a criminal charge, maybe prison on remand, and a fine, but the additional hefty costs, and even prison terms, of civil injunctions were unexpected.”
“When I found out about injunctions, I made a clear decision never to take action on injuncted roads or property,” Judith says. “I didn’t want to hand over my life savings to lawyers, nor risk having my home seized.”
Targeted by civil injunctions
Despite never having broken an injunction, Judith has ended up being named on three – those taken out by TfL, NHL and Thurrock. And just for being listed on them, she has to pay the legal costs involved.
“Because injunctions involve so much paperwork the costs get out of hand,” Judith explains. “These injunctions have been extended or revised frequently and every single time, in addition to court hearings, an official delivers another copy by hand, in duplicate, with a sticky notice on your door to make sure you see it. To one hundred people! I have to pay the costs for all that bureaucracy and legwork, even though I’ve never broken an injunction.”
Judith has just received her first bill – £1,500 owing to National Highways. As she’s listed on three injunctions, she knows there will be many more to come. Most stressful of all, she has no idea when the bills will stop coming, or what would happen if she were unable to pay.
“The process is completely unjust and opaque,” Judith says. “At least in criminal law if you’re found guilty you know what the penalty is. Here we have absolutely no idea. If we don’t pay, will the bailiffs come around? What’s the endpoint?”
Ben Buse’s story
Also sitting in the M25 in September 2021, desperate for action on the catastrophe we face, was Ben Buse, 37, a research associate from Bristol University.
Ben is named on five injunctions. Unlike Judith, he began by breaking them, returning to the M25 three more times after it was injuncted by National Highways.
“I felt very strongly that I had to carry on to put maximum pressure on the government in the run-up to COP26,” he says.
Ben explains how the dynamic of an injunction is completely different to a criminal proceeding. In a criminal court, you can have a defence, such as proportionality (although even that is coming under threat, with recent defendants deprived of this right). In the High Court, where you are prosecuted if you break an injunction, you have no defence. Either you broke the injunction or you didn’t. And appeals are futile, highly unlikely to achieve anything except for spiralling legal costs.
“As I broke the National Highways injunction three times, I had three committal hearings in the High Court,” says Ben. “I had to pay for these hearings – £5,000, £2,500, £1,250 – which I’m paying off in instalments. I also served five weeks in prison, have a suspended sentence, and have to pay £3,000 just to be named on the injunction.” Of course, that’s in addition to the criminal trials and fines Ben has faced, for the same series of actions.
Covering the establishment’s legal costs
Ben also has to pay legal costs of the TfL injunction, even though he has never carried out an action on the injuncted roads in London: being seen as ‘high risk’ is enough.
“The combination of everything has been very challenging,” he says. “My income as a research associate is £2,000 a month. Out of that £400 goes to National Highways, £200 goes towards paying off my criminal fines and another chunk goes towards the legal aid contribution I need to make for my criminal cases.
“After all that has gone out, I can only afford to exist. And I’m expecting bills from the TfL injunction to start arriving too, even though I’ve never been arrested, or even taken action, on the roads in question.”
As part of bail terms associated with another action, the Animal Rebellion blockade of a dairy in Bridgwater, Ben wears a tag, which means he has to be at home between 9pm and 6am. As the injunction fines are swallowing up his spare income, he can’t go anywhere: he lives in rural Somerset and the only affordable transport – buses, coaches or cycling – takes way too long.
Crushed but undeterred
When I asked him if he could get financial help from Insulate Britain, he said that wouldn’t help: it would simply inflate his income, leading to means-tested fines being increased too.
“I’ve lost my finances and I’ve lost my freedom of movement,” he says. “What I really want to do is take part in actions again. I want to go to London and take part in Just Stop Oil slow marches. The situation we’re in is terrifying and I don’t want to waste any of the precious time we have left.
“I’d love to throw my injunction paperwork in the bin, but it doesn’t really work like that. The totality of it all leaves you despondent. I feel crushed by the state but also angry with the state. Our movement goes on – while injunctions have hammered my own wellbeing and finances, thousands more are rising up in resistance, as we saw at ‘The Big One’ in London. We are at the mercy of a reckless, disregarding state, trashing the climate, environment and future wellbeing – we must seize this moment to save ourselves.”