A judge criticised for handing prison sentences to three fracking protesters has family links to the oil and gas industry.
Judge Robert Altham jailed Simon Blevins, 26, Richard Roberts, 36, and Richard Loizou, 31, over their demonstration at a Cuadrilla site.
The trio, known as the “Fracking Three”, are believed to be the first environmental activists to be imprisoned for public nuisance since 1932.
Critics have claimed the punishment was “manifestly excessive”. Now the Daily Mirror can reveal the Altham family business supplies the Irish Sea oil and gas industry.
J.C. Altham and Sons is believed to be part of the supply chain for energy giant Centrica, which has invested tens of millions of pounds in fracking.
Judge Altham’s sister, Jane Watson, put her name to an open letter in favour of fracking, which said, “It’s time to give shale a chance” and claimed it would create jobs.
The judicial code of conduct states a judge’s impartiality may be questioned if family members are “politically active” or have “financial interest” in the outcome of a case.
Lawyers for the protesters are trying to overturn their sentences. Loizou’s mum Sharron, 62, told the Mirror: “I was completely shocked when he was jailed, the sentence is incredibly harsh. We were expecting community service or a suspended sentence.
“It’s quite scary that in this country you can be jailed for a peaceful protest.”
The protesters climbed on to the roofs of lorries taking drilling equipment to a Cuadrilla fracking site in Little Plumpton, Lancashire, in July 2017. They refused to come down for between 45 and 84 hours, causing disruption and costing the firm £50,000.
Soil scientist Blevins and piano restorer Roberts were given 16-month jail terms while teacher Loizou got 15 months last month.
Sentencing at Preston crown court, Judge Altham said: “Only immediate custody can achieve sufficient punishment.”
The judge’s parents John and Linda, 86 and 84, are directors of J.C. Altham & Sons.
His sister Jane, 54, is managing director of the firm, which supplies ships’ stores, including food, tools, rigging equipment and clothes. The firm’s website says it is a “specialist supplier to offshore gas and oil platforms”.
Three oil rigs in the East Irish Sea – near Altham’s base at Heysham, Lancs – belong to British Gas owner Centrica, which has ploughed tens of millions of pounds into fracking firm Cuadrilla.
In 2015 Jane’s name and that of her firm appeared on an open letter backed by 119 businesses.
It urged Lancashire County Council to permit fracking and create a “£33billion supply chain”.
The campaign was led by North West Energy Task Force, which allegedly received financial support from Cuadrilla and Centrica. The NWETF was later rebranded as lobbying group Lancashire For Shale.
LFS has praised Judge Altham’s decision saying: “Justice was served effectively.”
But more than 200 academics signed an open letter calling for a judicial review of the “absurdly harsh” sentence. About 200 supporters of the trio marched outside HMP Preston, where they are being held, at the weekend. The trio’s lawyers have approached the Court of Appeal and asked for an expedited hearing.
It means they could be freed within weeks if Judge Altham’s sentencing decision is ruled unsafe. Kirsty Brimelow QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, has taken their cases pro-bono. She said: “These men should not be in prison at all, the sentence is manifestly excessive.”
Judges are expected to tell defence and prosecution lawyers if they feel their impartiality in a case may be called into question.
A spokesman for the Judges’ Council said: “There are longstanding principles, set out in case law, which guide how judges approach possible conflicts of interest. 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 parties in the case.”
Judge Altham did not wish to add anything to the Judges’ Council’s statement.
Sister Jane, a former police officer whose husband Stephen is the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, declined to comment today.
Drilling opponents fear quakes and poisoned water supply
Hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking – is a technique of recovering gas and oil.
Huge holes are drilled into the ground so that water, sand and chemicals can be injected into shale rock.
This process releases gas which can be collected by the fracking “well”. Opponents believe fracking triggers earthquakes and allows cancer-causing chemicals to contaminate water systems.
But the industry claims the technique is safe and pollution only happens as a result of bad practice. Significant reserves of shale gas have been identified across large parts of Britain, particularly in the North.
In July this year Cuadrilla was granted permission to start fracking in Lancashire, but this could be delayed by a challenge in the High Court today.
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