Last reviewed 7 February 2022

On 17 November 2021, the High Court gave judgment in the case of National Highways Ltd v Heyatawin and others. National Highways Ltd applied for an order that Insulate Britain protesters were in breach of an injunction order.

The Facts

National Highways Ltd is the highway authority for the UK’s motorways and major roads. On 8 October 2021, Heyatawin and eight others took part in a protest organised by the campaign group, Insulate Britain, at the Waltham Cross Interchange roundabout at Junction 25 on the M25 motorway. The aim of Insulate Britain is to induce the Government to take specific actions to address the climate emergency and fuel poverty. It states its two main aims as follows.

  • The Government should fund the insulation of all social housing by 2025.

  • A legally binding national plan for a low energy and low carbon retrofit of all homes in Britain by 2030.

National Highways applied to the High Court for an order that the nine protestors were in breach of an injunction order granted in September 2021 and were in contempt of court.

The background to the September injunction order was a series of protests organised by Insulate Britain. These involved the creation of human roadblocks where protestors sat in live lanes of traffic. National Highways obtained the injunction against “persons unknown causing the blocking, endangering, slowing down, obstructing or otherwise preventing the free flow of traffic onto or along the M25 motorway for the purpose of protesting”.

The injunction order had the following penal notice attached to it.

“If you the within named defendants or any of you disobey this order or instruct or encourage others to breach this order you may be held to be in contempt of court and may be imprisoned, fined or have your assets seized.”

The reaction of Insulate Britain to the injunction order included the following.

  • A number of protestors publicly burned the order.

  • Continued protests blocking the M25, which were accepted by the protesters as being in breach of the injunction.

The application to the High Court by National Highways included the following.

  • The conduct of the nine defendants was very serious and significant. It involved a risk to life of themselves and emergency workers.

  • The disruption of the road network involved disruption to emergency vehicles and the diversion of police resources.

  • The protest had caused economic damage.

  • Protestors had sat down in the road surface and glued themselves to the surface.

Decision

The High Court judge is reported to have made the following comments.

  • In our democratic society, all citizens are equal under the law and all are subject to the law. It is integral to the rule of law, and to the fair and peaceful resolution of disputes, first, that orders made by the court must be obeyed unless and until they are set aside or subject to successful challenge on appeal, and secondly, a that a mechanism exists to enforce orders made by the court against those who breach them. In this jurisdiction, that mechanism is provided by the law of contempt.

  • To establish liability for contempt of court, an applicant to commit must prove each of the following elements: having received notice of the order, the defendant did an act prohibited by the order; he intended to do the act; he had knowledge of all the facts which would make the carrying out of the prohibited act a breach of the order.

  • Each of the defendants did acts prohibited by the M25 order, having received notice of the order.

  • Each of the defendants intended to do the relevant acts.

  • Each of the defendants had knowledge of the facts which would make the carrying out of the relevant acts a breach of the M25 order.

  • There is no set tariff for sanctions for contempt of court, because every case depends on its facts. The court has a broad discretion when considering the penalty for contempt.

  • In a democratic society which recognises the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, protests causing some degree of convenience are to be expected and, up to a point, tolerated.

  • Two of the defendants were sentenced to three months imprisonment. One was sentenced to six months and the others to four months.

On behalf of National Highways, counsel stated that the legal costs of the contempt proceedings were £91,000 and asked the court to order the defendants to pay this amount. The court rejected the application and stated that the amount of costs was excessive. It awarded a total of £45,000 and ordered the nine defendants to pay £5000 each.

Comment

Before the case, a spokesperson for National Highways made the following comments.

  • National Highways is now taking the first group of activists from Insulate Britain to court for breaching injunctions by blocking the M25.

  • It would continue working with the police to bring those who carried out dangerous and disruptive actions to justice.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is quoted as having commented the following.

  • We are taking the first group of activists to court for dangerous and self-defeating action along the M25. They now face potential prison time.

Insulate Britain is reported to have made the following comments after the case.

  • The Government has shown its cowardice. Nine ordinary people have been committed to prison for demanding that the Government fulfil its election pledges by insulating Britain’s homes.

  • Following the widely recognised failure of the Government at COP26, Insulate Britain was asking it to get on with the job: of cutting carbon emissions; of insulating cold and leaky houses; of protecting the people of this country from climate collapse, because the lives of our children and those of all future generations hang in the balance.

  • Insulate Britain recognises the disruption and frustrations caused by its actions. It calls on the Government to stop 8500 people dying each year because they can’t keep warm, to stop millions of British families being cold and hungry, and to act to protect us from the unfolding terror of mass starvation.