False choice for public interest environmental law

The Australian Legal Affairs Editor, Chris Merritt (Market model is worth copying for our legal centres, 11 October 2013) recently proposed a false choice between providing Legal Aid for less well-off Australians on criminal charges and ‘protecting trees’ under the law.

Many local communities around NSW have made it very clear that they see a strong public interest in legal protection for the environment and heritage – not only ‘trees’, but water quality, biodiversity including much-loved species like koalas, the integrity of farmland, human health, local amenity, indigenous culture and more.

These local communities also see that their concerns are not addressed by commercial law firms or models. Which is precisely why Australia and NSW have maintained a decades-old tradition of public funding for a range of community legal centres, including public interest environmental law ones.

This meets explicit community demand for independent expert legal advice, which on rare occasions includes courtroom litigation, and more subtly bolsters the overall administration of the legal system by filtering out cases that lack strong legal merit and a substantial public interest element.

Many community members also remain deeply concerned about the planning system and the impact of decisions by governments and public agencies on developments that affect them. Such people will be alarmed at The Australian’s proposition that a ‘market model’ should replace the current approach based on significant public funding.

EDO NSW Executive Director, Jeff Smith