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Shell may face contempt proceedings over pipeline breach

As the Rossport Five walked to freedom in the High Court on Friday after 94 days in jail, Shell oil company executives, who had demanded their imprisonment in the first place, were themselves having to face potential contempt of court issues.High Court President, Mr Justice Joseph Finnegan, who released the men to the cheers of their families and friends, told counsel for Shell, Mr Patrick Hanratty, he wanted the company to address its breach of an undertaking not to do anything not permitted by the licence of Minister for the Marine, Noel Dempsey. That included continuing construction of the Corrib pipeline which Shell had continued to carry out in breach of both the undertaking and the Minister’s licence and Mr Justice Finnegan said he wanted this matter addressed by a full sworn affidavit from Shell. He said he would deal with the matter at a further hearing later this month. (Oct)Judge Finnegan had stated at earlier hearings that he would deal with Shell’s breach of its undertaking but not while the five Mayo men remained in prison. After having been told by Mr Hanratty that Shell now wished to have the temporary injunction, which restrained interference with the pipeline, lifted, Judge Finnegan said it seemed to serve no useful purpose at this stage and he said he would discharge the injunction.The five men are: Willie Corduff, James Philbin, Vincent Mc Grath, Philip Mc Grath and Micheal O Seighin.When Mr John Rogers, S.C., counsel for four of the five men, asked if it was the court’s intention to discharge the committal order Judge Finnegan asked: ‘Why should I do that.’Mr Rogers, who appeared with Mr Peter Bland, said an order of committal was intended to be coercive, persuasive of purging civil contempt, and submitted the court did not have lawful jurisdiction to punish the men further than the term of imprisonment already served.He said that in civil contempt the court only moved at the instance of the party whose rights had been infringed. When the party seeking to enforce an order had no reason to further continue with the injunction the committal to prison was discharged with the injunction.Judge Finnegan said it seemed they intended continuing the course they had adopted and asked were they not going to purge their contempt.Mr Rogers said it was his clients perception that there was an immediate danger to their families from the pipeline.“I have had precise instructions as to what to say to the court and regrettably that does not include a further undertaking,” Mr Rogers said. “They have instructed me to say to you that they have sincere regret that they disobeyed your lordship’s order.“However they find themselves in circumstances where they feel they were coerced into taking the action they did. They wish me to apologise to the court and express that.”Mr Rogers said regrettably the question of an undertaken had arisen with regard to their future actions. They found themselves in a situation where they could not abide by an order of the court having regard to their personal circumstances where they believed the pipeline would give rise to real risk to their safety. That was their decision and he could not change that. Mr Hanratty had applied to discharge the injunction and they knew that since July the Minister had actually asked Shell to remove and dismantle the pipeline which remained the position today.Judge Finnegan lifted the committal order, releasing the men, and adjourned the matter of the court’s powers to further punish them until October 25 and sought legal submissions from all parties on the question and as to why he should not apply such powers.Earlier Mr Hanratty outlined the history of the earlier court proceedings and said that where there was an injunction in place and a change of circumstances occurred it was appropriate such change should be drawn to the court’s attention.He said the Minister for the Marine had instigated a safety review of the pipeline which he had asked Atlantico to carry out and which was expected to be completed in November. He had also put in place a consultation process to allow written submissions to be made by October 28. The process also included a two day public hearing. The Minister was keen that all parties, including the men, would take part.Mr Hanratty said it was quite clear no further construction work could take place by Shell until the completion of the safety review. Weather conditions in the West of Ireland would also not facilitate further construction work.As a result of this the question of an interlocutory injunction was now effectively redundant and could be dealt with during an early hearing of the trial which had been promised by the court.

Posted Date: 
6 October 2005 - 4:27pm