Eco lawyers branch out
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26 May 2014
The newly launched Earthrights Solicitors is a very different law firm: money- making is not its prime objective.
The firm is devoted exclusively to championing green rights and saving the planet. Its founders, John Dunkley and Charlie Hopkins, claim they are “environmentalists first and lawyers second”.
It has no senior partner, since Dunkley and Hopkins’ principles eschew hierarchies. And it is located in cyberspace, as both solicitors work from home, using a “high-tech, low cost” approach that they light-heartedly refer to as “legal telecottaging”.
Earthrights Solicitors is a financially independent off-shoot of Earthrights, a charity that gives free legal advice to environmental campaigners. It was launched in January, but has been operating since June last year.
The firm’s founders aim to charge low, non-commercial rates. They also intend to subsidise pro bono cases through their fee-paying work.
Despite this apparent contradiction, both lawyers are buoyant about their financial chances. But then Dunkley and Hopkins seem worlds apart from the stereotypical cash-hungry solicitor.
When quizzed how many “green” charities he is a member of, for example, Dunkley laughs and answers that he “can’t afford the subscriptions”.
When asked about the perks of their jobs, Hopkins says he gets to go to the annual Surfers Against Sewage ball, where 3,000 lycra-clad surfers whoop it up in a marquee on a Devonshire clifftop, and Dunkley says he was once offered a wooden stove designed for use in treehouses.
Dunkley confesses to having an “organic garden” at his Essex home, while Hopkins is trying to work out an eco-friendly way to dispose of slugs at his home in Devon.
Both refuse to hug a tree for the photographs, although Dunkley arrives sensibly dressed in a thick cable-knit jumper for the photo-shoot, which is followed by a drink in “The Green Man”.
Hopkins is a former lecturer in environmental psychology and sociology at North London Polytechnic, where he taught in the 80s. While there, he became friendly with a number of barristers who convinced him of the scope and need for people with an environmental background in the law. He qualified as a barrister and did his pupillage at Old Square chambers, which has a good reputation for environmental law.
Hopkins then worked for Leigh, Day & Co as a barrister, where he helped the firm develop its environmental department, before becoming a solicitor and joining Bindmans as a consultant, and finally Earthrights Solicitors.
Dunkley worked for Hackney Law Centre and the Law Centres Federation, before joining the Earthrights charity as a solicitor.
Then the penny dropped. Dunkley says: “The problem with the charity was that it couldn’t accept payment because that would threaten its charity status. But groups like Friends of the Earth have to go to the private sector and pay commercial rates for legal work, therefore it makes sense to set up a law firm so that we can be paid instead, and our clients get low cost legal advice.”
Dunkley and Hopkins says Earthrights Solicitors works as a viable business because it minimises its overheads and business costs.
This was starkly demonstrated by the firm successful work last year on behalf of campaigners fighting to protect two Dartmoor rivers threatened by a porcelain clay quarry, which culminated in a public inquiry.
Earthrights’ claims its total legal costs were £40,000, compared to the other side’s costs of £140,000. Dunkley says the firm acting for the other side hired a top QC and commissioned environmental surveys, whereas Earthrights was assisted by E-LAW - a global scientific and legal information charity. Friends of the Earth in-house lawyer Peter Roderick acted as the campaigners’ advocate at the inquiry.
The charity, Earthrights, is considering setting up a pro bono fund for legal campaigns, which could be another source of funds for Dunkley and Hopkins. The pair stress, however, that the setting up of this fund is entirely a matter for the charity’s directors and nothing to do with them.
In their favour is the fact that there is an increasing amount of environmental law work around, along with an increasing awareness of green issues by the general public and pressure on the commercial sector to show commitment to the environment.
Hopkins claims this need is not being met by the legal profession and that law firms lack a solid understanding of environmental issues.
Several top-ranking firms, including Hopkins’ former employer Leigh, Day & Co, have profit-making environmental law departments. The difference, say Earthrights’ founders, is that their firm will only work for clients who are promoting the environment, whereas environmental law work can be for the other side which is far more lucrative.
Earthrights Solicitors’ work is multifarious. Last year Hopkins assisted with the drafting of a United Nations convention on water and health, providing direct input on behalf of environmental groups and then translating it into legal terminology.
The firm also acted for organic farmer Guy Watson, in a precedent-setting action to force a neighbouring farmer to harvest his genetically modified maize - which was growing in a field next to Watson’s land - before the maize pollinated. Otherwise the risk of the maize contaminating Watson’s crops threatened to destroy his eligibility for an organic certificate.
During the Newbury by-pass protests in 1996 where campaigners took to treehouses along the route of the planned road, Dunkley was “on call” 24 hours a day, providing legal advice for any protesters approached by police, as well as training campaigners to advise others of their rights.
Their work for such groups as Surfers Against Sewage is “holistic”, involving everything from drafting contracts to advising on the legal implications of publicity stunts. They also bring judicial reviews of local authority actions and, on a more mundane note, act in the registration of village greens.
Hopkins and Dunkley have to be careful about getting involved in direct action campaigning, so they do not breach Law Society rules by bringing the profession into disrepute. Instead, both lawyers will be channelling their campaigning energies into their new-style law firm.
Environmental law locked out of government funding
Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) director, Maria Adebowale, acknowledges that environmental issues are difficult to fund. ELF is an environmental charity that provides information and maintains a network of almost 300 lawyers who provide pro bono assistance with environmental law cases.
Adebowale argues environ-mental law - officially recognised as an “area” of law about eight years ago - should be allocated a specific category by the Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD) for the purposes of legal aid, in a similar way to criminal law, family law and personal injury law.
She says that environmental law should be exempt from the Lord Chancellor’s plans to abolish legal aid for personal injury cases, in the same way that clinical negligence cases have been.
She adds that the high initial cost of investigating environmental cases - which frequently involves complex scientific research - can be comp-ared to clinical negligence cases. She also claims the anticipated damages are likely to fall below the threshold for legal aid funding.
Under the Legal Aid Board’s proposed Funding Code, legal aid will only be available in cases expected to recover three times their costs in damages.
Earthrights Solicitors, John Dunkley and Charlie Hopkins, share Adebowale’s concerns, and say environmental law is being unfairly treated by the LCD.