Champion of the public's environmental rights

Martin Polden, chair of the Environmental Law Foundation, is a poacher turned game keeper.

For many years his legal career involved representing developers who, in his own words, “were wreaking disaster on town centres”.

“And then I saw the error of my ways,” he said. “I gave it all up and started to try and do something positive for the community.”

In 1992 he became chair of the Environmental Law Foundation. Then in 1994, he retired from his own practice, Rubinstein Callingham Polden & Gale, and joined Ross & Craig as an environmental consultant.

Four years on, the foundation, which sees itself as a lifeline for communities to legal and technical expertise to prevent damage to the environment, has just published its third annual report.

Since its establishment, the foundation has attracted nearly 150 legal and environmentalist members who are jointly consulted over referred cases; it has administered 550 cases and published several manuals on environmental litigation.

In 1995 the foundation became a registered charity and appointed a separate secretariat to handle mounting enquiries.

Director Katherine Davis said: “Individuals and organisations are becoming more aware of environmental issues, but they do not realise how the law can be used to help.

“Twice as many groups asked for help in the last year than before and we have proved that having legal and technical advice behind them gets their voices heard and action taken.”

Referred cases get an initial consultation free of charge and much of the work is done on a pro bono or legal aid basis. The incentive for lawyers, according to the foundation, is the combination of professional experience while putting something back into the community.

“Lawyers have to be very creative in coming up with solutions because their clients often have very little money,” said Davis.

Clients are mostly corporations and cases have included the appeal court Docklands noise pollution case which set a precedent to allow nuisance claims from anyone who can show the nuisance has affected the use and enjoyment of their home.

“Environmental law is relatively under-developed”, said Davis, “We and our members are learning all the time. The emphasis on cases constantly changes.

“Air pollution is big business at the moment, while transport is less significant.”

Polden said: “ELF has given an authoritative voice to the people. By increasing awareness among local citizens, steps can be taken to stop or at least reduce environmental problems.”

Leading environment lawyer Stephen Tromans of Simmons & Simmons said: “Although I am not a member, my firm is and I very much support what ELF is doing. The quality of the work is of course dependent on the individual lawyer involved.”