A judge has called for the end of state aid to anti-fracking protesters fighting their cases in court in a bid to save tax-payers’ money.
London-based District Judge Michael Snow was speaking after a two-day trial of eight campaigners arrested after a lock-on protest at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas drill site.
Anti-fracking campaigners have hit out at the judge’s remarks, warning it would set a ‘very dangerous precedent’ to further limit access to legal aid.
Judge Snow who normally sits at Westminster Magistrates’ Court said: “I don’t think these cases merit legal aid in the future.
“I say that for the benefit of the legal aid system.”
There has been a steady stream of protesters in court this year, particularly after a month-long drive in July from the national Reclaim the Power group, where people lock themselves together with limbs inside metal tubes across the entrance to the drill site to try to prevent work taking place.
While the exact legal aid bill linked to arrests at the fracking site is not known, there have been dozens of applications for state support by protesters facing criminal charges.
By March, 40 such claims had already been lodged, with each potentially worth hundreds of pounds. Longer trials can cost upwards of £1,000 per defendant.
The judge’s view has sparked heated comments with supporters of shale gas saying the protests have caused disruption and wasted public money, while anti-frackers have blasted the remarks saying people had the right to representation in court.
Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla said: “People have a right to lawful protest, which we respect.
We have consistently said that these illegal and intimidating protest tactics are a waste of taxpayers’ money both in terms of policing and the judiciary’s time.
“That said, professional activists, the majority from outside Lancashire, have a track record of illegally causing road closures, preventing Lancashire businesses carrying out their lawful work and seriously disrupting Lancashire commuters going about their daily business.
“These activists are quite rightly being brought before court to answer the charges against them.
“We have consistently said that these illegal and intimidating protest tactics are a waste of taxpayers’ money both in terms of policing and the judiciary’s time.”
A spokesman from Frack Free Lancashire said: “It is an important pillar of our legal system that access to justice is not constrained or dictated by financial circumstances so that we can all be at least theoretically equal before the law.
“The government’s own guidelines state that you should be eligible for legal aid if you’ve been accused of a crime and you can’t afford to pay for legal costs.
“We reject absolutely the judge’s remarks, which risk setting a very dangerous precedent for access to justice in this country.
“As District Judge Jeff Brailsford said whilst acquitting an anti-fracking protester in May this year, there is a right to protest and every one of these cases will be treated on its own merits.
“Denying defendants legal aid would effectively be pre-judging the issues which would run counter to the very basis and ethics of the English legal system.”