EDOs stand firm against attacks
Over the past week, the fossil fuel lobby has been attacking Environmental Defenders Offices and our clients in the pages of The Australian newspaper.
22 June 2019: We are a community legal centre of expert lawyers, proudly and unapologetically helping the NSW community to use the law to protect wildlife, people and our planet.
Environmental laws should not be for the few. They affect us all. Yet once again we are forced to defend the community's access to justice against attacks by a fossil fuel lobby aggrieved by the power our work provides to communities who seek to challenge the lawfulness and merit of their major projects.
EDO NSW's litigation work on behalf of our clients plays an important role, ensuring that people have access to justice and are able to exercise their rights under Australian law. People have a right to use the law to protect their family, homes and environment. To be clear, as public interest community legal centres, EDOs do not litigate on our own behalf, but represent clients (community groups, Aboriginal groups and individuals) who may otherwise be unable to have access to the justice system.
It’s disappointing to see, yet again, the Minerals Council and Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association demonstrating their lack of understanding of, and respect for, the rule of law. At their heart, these claims are an attack on our democracy and we should all be very concerned.
The fossil fuel lobby has a track record of making the unsubstantiated claim that EDOs engage in vexatious litigation, and frankly it’s getting tired. Despite being over-utilised, this claim remains a troubling proposition. EDO NSW lawyers, who include some of the best in our field, take our professional responsibilities extremely seriously. Our 30 year track record is evidence of that. Not once in our history have our clients’ cases been found to be ‘frivolous or vexatious’.
Unfortunately, their words have consequences.It was this kind of concerted campaigning from the Mineral Council that led to every EDO across Australia having its Federal funding cut completely in 2013.
Now they're coming for the small amount of State Government funding that we receive to continue our important role as a community legal centre that provides free legal advice to the NSW community. It’s a role we’ve played with bipartisan support for over 35 years.
You can help show them we're not going anywhere by making a tax-deductible donation today.
Underpinning most of our litigation work is a question about whether the law has been complied with. That decision-makers apply the law is a fundamental feature of our democracy. Ensuring the law is complied with should be uncontroversial.
In other instances, our work interrogates whether approving a project is – considering all the circumstances – the correct or preferable decision. These are not simple questions. The answer lies in the weighting of a range of different factors. Our important work ensures that evidence proffered in support of a project is thoroughly tested.
In a number of instances, including in the recent case concerning the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine, the economic benefits of the mine put forward by the mining company were found to be overstated, based on the evidence put forward by both the Government’s expert and our client’s. Equally the economic negatives of that project - including social impacts and impacts on Aboriginal cultural heritage - were found to have been understated by the mining company.
Litigation is a small component of the work this office does on behalf of clients. When we do so, it is only after application of our casework guidelines and detailed analysis from senior legal experts to ensure there are merits in bringing a case.
EDO NSW also provides the community with free legal advice and education - work that does see us receive some State government grants. Our office operates a daily advice line providing free advice on matters of environmental and planning law.
The NSW Government has provided EDO NSW with funding for decades, irrespective of which party is in Government. This demonstrates a bipartisan understanding of our role and corresponding support for the provision of access to justice in this space - that is, allowing members of the community to understand and seek advice about NSW environmental and planning laws.
Our work relates to ensuring that laws are applied correctly, and ensuring that evidence put forward by project proponents is tested in an appropriate and independent forum. Any changes to the law that erode community opportunities to participate in environmental decision-making would be very concerning. This could easily be seen as a blatant attempt to further prioritise the rights of coal mining companies over the rights of communities, including farmers, eco-tourism operators and others.
David Morris CEO - Solicitor