Energy giant EDF is suing protestors and friends of the 'No Dash For Gas' campaign group for £5 million, claiming damages for the money spent and lost during the week-long West Burton protest which saw campaigners shut down the gas-fired power station in 2012.

The proposed civil case is being pursued despite the fact that 21 activists have pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated trespass at Mansfield Magistrates Court in connection with the protest. Of these, 17 will be sentenced on 20 March, with the rest to be sentenced on 2 April.

Protest groups are concerned that if EDF is allowed to continue pursuing the legal action, the resulting costs will put off future protestors from taking on large corporations.

edf sues protestors £5m

One of the protestors during the week-long sit in at the West Burton plant

John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace, likened the action to the McLibel case in several press reports on Thursday.

The McLibel case was a legal action pursued by McDonald's in the 1990s against two activists over pamphlets which they and other members of the London Greenpeace group distributed on the streets of London, accusing the corporation of among other things; wasting vast quantities of grain and water, engaging in economic imperialism, altering its food with artificial chemistry and exploiting children with its advertising.

The case was settled with many of the members of the group, but two English protestors Helen Steel and David Morris took their defence all the way to court. The court case dragged on for more than a decade and attracted massive negative publicity for the restaurant chain.

Even when McDonalds was eventually found to be the victor, it refused to pick up the £40,000 it had been awarded, such was the negativity around the case.

"EDF's lawsuit represents the opening of a new front against peaceful protest," Sauven said. "It's difficult to imagine how we at Greenpeace could have run our successful campaigns against illegal rainforest timber imports or pirate fishing if every time we took direct action we were landed with a multimillion-pound bill."

The Protest

Sixteen campaigners occupied two chimneys at West Burton for a week in October 2012, stopping nearly 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. The activists – 21 in total – were convicted of aggravated trespass at Mansfield Magistrates Court on Thursday. Seventeen are due to be sentenced on 20 March, and the remaining four on 2 April.

The protest itself was aimed at challenging the government's plan to build up to 40 new gas-fired power stations, which would see gas accounting for over 50% of the UK's power generation over the next three decades.

The campaigners blame the lobbying power of big energy companies like EDF for the government's current pro-gas position.

Ewa Jasiewicz and Hannah Davey detail the charges being levied at the activists in the video at the top of this article.

Police involvement questioned

A second concern which has arisen over this new EDF claim is that the court papers were served to the defendants by serving police officers of Nottinghamshire Police force.

A solicitor acting for some of the protesters who had been arrested was passed a copy of the EDF action by police, while others say they were passed papers directly. This is not the normal process for companies suing individuals - normally the papers are served by someone representing the corporation.

West Burton protester Danny Chivers told the Guardian he was leaving the police station after being bailed when one of the officers who had been dealing with his arrest ran out of the station after him.

"He said 'Mr Chivers, there's something I was meant to give you. I'm serving this on you as a courtesy to EDF'", referring to a document giving details of the civil case.

"One thing that really concerns me about this affair is: in whose interests are the police acting," he continued. "They're meant to be working in the public interest, not acting as messengers for private companies to help them to bully protesters."

edf sues protestors £5m

The protestors set up abseiling ropes to manouevre between the chimneys during their takeover of the West Burton plant

The issue of alleged collusion between the police and corporations has attracted the attention of MPs in parliament. Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, asked the home secretary in Parliament what her policy was on the provision of information by the police to private companies that are planning or taking civil legal action against protesters, where those protesters may be subject to criminal proceedings

She also asked clarification of the government's views on the timing of the provision of such information and the provision of other practical assistance by the police to companies taking civil proceedings, including service or quasi-service of court papers. As of 21 February, no response had been forthcoming.

The campaigners are concerned that the move by the police to assist EDF may be part of a wider crack down on legal protests - Freedom of Information documents obtained by No Dash for Gas show that a Special Advisor in the Department for Energy was liaising with the police about the bail conditions of the protestors before most of the activists had even been arrested.

Should EDF's claim succeed, several of the campaigners face losing their homes, and all could face bankruptcy or be forced to pay a percentage of their salaries to EDF for decades to come. The amount of the claim represents just 0.3% of EDF's annual UK profits, which rose by 7.5% this year to £1.7 billion.

Ewa Jasiewicz, a No Dash for Gas defendant, said in a statement: "This is starting to look just like McLibel. It's a David and Goliath battle between protesters with nothing but their bodies to put in the way, and out-of-control Big Energy which has a business plan that will drive up bills, push millions into fuel poverty and crash our climate targets. We will be resisting EDF's claim every step of the way."

Aneaka Kelly, another No Dash for Gas defendant, added: "This un-civil action by EDF is not about money – they know we don't have this kind of cash. EDF just want to make sure that anyone who tries to stand up and challenge their profiteering price hikes, shady government lobbying and climate-trashing power plants is quickly silenced by the threat of legal action."

EDF said it supports the right to lawful protest and respects differing points of view, but that the consequences of the campaigners' activity "put lives at risk, caused considerable disruption to the site during its construction, and considerable financial losses".

The energy supplier added: "It also delayed the completion of the new power station – part of a massive investment in the UK's energy supply which will provide enough electricity for 1.5m homes. It is important that those considering this kind of action understand that they may face consequences through civil action for the damage, cost and disruption they cause."