Anti-fracking campaigners today said they were shocked by revelations that the judge, who jailed three protesters last month, has family links to the oil and gas industry.
Robert Altham jailed three men on September 26 for a lorry surfing protest which took place in July and disrupted traffic on the busy Preston New Road, near Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Little Plumpton, for nearly four days.
They climbed onto the top of the trucks when a convoy of seven lorries – carrying specialist drilling equipment – was travelling from Immingham Docks towards the site.
The men – soil scientist Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, primary school teacher Richard Loizou, 31, and piano restorer Richard Roberts, 36, were the UK’s first anti-fracking protesters to receive custodial sentences. They are to appeal.
But the Daily Mirror has revealed the Heysham-based Altham family business, J.C. Altham and Sons, supplies the gas industry off the Lancashire coast and Judge Altham’s sister, Jane Watson, and the firm’s name, appeared on a letter to Lancashire County Council in support of fracking in 2015, when the council was set to rule on whether to grant planning permission for the Preston New Road fracking operation.
The letter was part of a campaign run by lobbying group North West Energy Task Force, which received financial backing from Centrica and Cuadrilla and which later changed into the Lancashire For Shale group.
The group continues to get support from various organisations, including Cuadrilla, and Spirit Energy, which operates the gas platforms in Morecambe Bay. Centrica is a 69 per cent shareholder in Spirit Energy.
Judge Altham’s decision to jail the men, two for 16 months and one for 15, came after a trial at Preston. He said: “Given the disruption caused in this case, only immediate custody can achieve sufficient punishment.
A spokesman for Frack Free Lancashire said: “If Judge Altham did not make the link clear to interested parties, including the defence, then the revelation that his sister was a signatory to the letter calling on Lancashire County Council to “grant permission for the development of two exploratory wells in Lancashire” and to “give shale a chance” is quite shocking.
“The Guide to Judicial Conduct makes it quite clear that ‘Where a close member of a judge’s family is politically active, the judge needs to bear in mind the possibility that, in some proceedings, that political activity might raise concerns about the judge’s own impartiality and detachment from the political process.’
“The positive involvement of his sister’s company with shale gas advocacy is made obvious in the North West Energy Task Force’s list of shale gas advocates which show both its name and location.
“NWETF was an industry funded group with links to Cuadrilla and to the PR company, notorious for its aggressive tactics, Westbourne Communications. It is clear questions need to be asked.”
A spokesman for the judiciary said: “Judges are required to base their sentencing decisions on the facts of each case and within the relevant sentencing guidelines and carefully explain their reasoning in court.
“There are long-standing principles, set out in case law, which guide how judges approach possible conflicts of interest. These principles are explained in the publicly available Guide to Judicial Conduct.
"They ensure that when hearing a case, a judge will be mindful of possible conflicts of interest, and can draw relevant matters to the attention of the parties in the case.”
A spokesman for the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office said: “The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office have not received any complaints regarding this matter.”