In recent years some activists have honed their tactics with a view to causing as much disruption as possible to their intended targets. Alongside online harassment, these activists are evolving their methods for physical protests. But increasingly there appears to be a legal fight-back: there have been several Court decisions in the last few years as companies and organisations seek injunctions to stop these physical protests. In this article Nina Winter looks at the current state of the law following some of these recent cases: is it still possible to get injunctions to prevent physical protests that cause business disruption? Can these injunctions be used to prevent protests on farms?
Evolution or revolution?
This article is not about protest marches through the streets or other similar lawful and peaceful demonstrations. This article concerns physical protests that are intended to – and do – cause significant disruption to the intended targets. Neither is this article about illegal encampments, although the same legal principles apply to injunctions to prevent these.
Activists have been evolving their tactics in recent years. Previously most on-farm incursions were done at night, in secret, by one or two activists. They would film or photograph the farm and then seek to do an “exposé”, often months afterwards. Sit-in or lock-on protests where protestors appear and attach themselves to each other and to fixtures are not a new phenomenon in general terms, but the extent of these protests appearing on farms – and the more sophisticated lock-on tactics – seem to be on the increase. Flash events where numbers turn-up en-masse and where they seek to overwhelm the farm – and the local police – are also a relatively new development. Finally we have increasingly seen protests outside farms and abattoirs where the protestors seek to blockade the entrance or to slow-walk in front of vehicles entering the site. These ostensibly “peaceful” protests can in fact be very intimidating for people entering the site, can cause business disruption and may be incredibly dangerous especially when the protestors are putting themselves in front of, or hanging off the sides of, HGVs.
These on-farm protests are not confined to farms with animals. Whilst pig and poultry units have been frequent targets and livestock and dairy farms are seeing increased activity, the XR protests of recent years show that environmental protest is also on the increase. Sometimes protests can even be triggered by entirely local issues, such as planning consents.
These protests are far more than a minor nuisance; they can be devastating to the farm that is targeted. Indeed, that is frequently the intention. Firstly, the farm is usually the location of the family home, and the presence of a large number of activists on farm can cause alarm and distress to the family living there as well as the farm’s employees. Secondly, the protests cause significant disruption: frequent protests can deter suppliers or customers and even one-off flash protests can shut the farming operation down for a time causing economic loss. Thirdly, the protests can cause damage to property as well as raising biosecurity and animal welfare issues (and farm vets may justifiably refuse to put themselves in the melee).
Usually, alongside the physical protest, the activists will run a sustained campaign of online harassment, targeting the farm as well as its suppliers and customers. The ultimate goal of these activists is to shut down the farm and they may pursue this goal relentlessly, even by unlawful means.
Call in the police
If a large number of protestors turn up on your farm unexpectedly, your first port of call is likely to be the police – and rightly so. But do bear in that the police are unlikely to turn up and cart the protestors off in handcuffs. First and foremost the police will be concerned with the safety of the public and of everyone on the farm – including the safety of the protestors. They will seek to keep the peace and they have to consider every action in light of their duty to respect the legally-protected rights to protest. Put bluntly, the economic damage caused to your farming business is not going to be top of their priority list.
What happens though when you know in advance about a protest? Perhaps you’ve seen posts online indicating that a flash protest is going to take place at your farm. Maybe you’ve had a spate of protests and it’s clear that more will follow. Or perhaps you’ve discovered that activists have been on farm and you highly suspect it was a reconnaissance visit for a physical protest. Prevention is better than cure, so an option you can consider is applying for an injunction to try to stop the protest – but you will need to act quickly.
Keep off my farm!
Injunctions to prevent unlawful acts aren’t new, but there have been a spate of injunctions going through the Courts in the last few years as companies and organisations seek to protect their property and businesses from protestors. In Cuadrilla Bowland Limited & Others v Persons Unknown  the Court of Appeal considered the terms of an injunction granted by the High Court as well as the committal to prison of 3 protestors for contempt of Court for breaching the injunction. The injunction in that case included various restrictions including prohibiting trespass and nuisance by blocking the highway and slow-walking in front of vehicles. The injunction applied to named protestors as well as “persons unknown” (this is needed when you can’t identify all of the protestors by name). The Court upheld the committals (although it varied the sanctions imposed) and effectively confirmed the lawfulness and effectiveness of the injunction.
In Canada Goose UK Retail Limited & Others v Persons Unknown  the Court of Appeal made it clear, however, that the terms of an injunction must be clearly and precisely worded if it is to be enforceable. In that case, Canada Goose – a retailer of clothing products, some containing down and fur – had obtained an injunction against un-named animal rights activists who had engaged in repeated protests outside Canada Goose’s store in London. Canada Goose sought to have the interim injunction made final and the Court ruled that whilst it’s permissible to grant interim injunctions against “persons unknown”, final injunctions cannot be granted against anyone not specifically named and identified.
So what can you do?
Looking at these two cases, together with other cases which have gone through the Courts in recent years, you can still get injunctions to prevent certain protests and these injunctions could be used to stop protests on farms. You’re more likely to get an injunction where the protest has disruption of your farming business as its aim (rather than as a side-effect). You will need to gather evidence about what the protestors have been doing, or what is being threatened. You will need to word your injunction very carefully if the Court is going to grant it (and to ensure it can be enforced). You should try to identify protestors where you can, but where that’s not possible you can still get an interim injunction, and you can still enforce the injunction, but you won’t get a final injunction. The key difference is that interim injunctions usually last for several months (perhaps up to a year) whereas final injunctions will last much longer (it’s unlikely these days that you will get an indefinite injunction though).
Is it worth it?
Injunctions cannot physically stop protestors from coming on to your farm – only a barrier can do that. But they do create serious legal consequences for protestors who are aware of the injunction and breach it, and you can take legal action to enforce your injunction. Making protestors aware of the injunction once you’ve got it is key to its success. Whilst an interim injunction may not be forever, it may be long enough either for the protestors to move on to another issue or location, or for you to take other steps to protect your site from future incursions.
About the Author
Nina Winter is a Senior Solicitor with 16 years post-qualification experience in litigation and dispute resolution, with particular expertise in judicial review challenges to government and public body decisions and an established reputation as a legal expert in the agricultural industry. Nina read law at Oxford University before training and qualifying at Eversheds. In 2006 Nina joined the legal team of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the leading trade association representing farmers and growers in England and Wales. In 2009 Nina was appointed as the NFU’s Chief Legal Adviser, a position she held for 12 years before joining Prospect Law. Having worked as in-house counsel for 14 years, Nina is able to quickly identify the legal issues at stake and to work pragmatically and seamlessly as part of a team to achieve the client’s objective. Nina’s expertise in agriculture means she brings a comprehensive understanding of the issues facing agri-businesses to her legal work.
Prospect Law is a multi-disciplinary practice with specialist expertise in the energy, infrastructure and natural resources sectors with particular experience in the low carbon energy sector. The firm is made up of lawyers, engineers, surveyors and other technical experts.
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This article is not intended to constitute legal or other professional advice and it should not be relied on in any way.
For more information or assistance with a particular query, please in the first instance contact Adam Mikula on 020 7947 5354 or by email on [email protected].
  EWCA Civ 9
  EWCA Civ 303