The laws of nature

A minimal budget and archaic UK laws have made protecting nature more than a full-time job for WWF-UK’s Niall Watson. Husnara Begum reports

Ironically, Niall Watson, the legal adviser of WWF-UK (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund), part of the global environment network, now works harder than he did when he was in private practice. But being able to work for an organisation with which he has an emotional connection is the reason why Watson left the City. He also likes the small, relaxed atmosphere of WWF-UK’s legal department.

To some, working for a not-for-profit organisation outside of London may seem far removed from the dynamic City culture, but for Watson, it involves advising a high-profile and influential global organisation with a presence in 52 countries, on cutting edge legal issues that aim to stretch the boundaries.

Contrary to popular belief, WWF is not purely dedicated to the conservation of wildlife. Its work covers six key areas, which include the protection and/or sustainable use of species, forests, freshwater, marine eco systems, toxic chemicals and climate change. The organisation also works on the same key drivers affecting those issues, such as globalisation, international trade and investment, business sustainability and general international development issues. Consequently, Watson is a jack of all trades, advising on a combination of company and commercial issues, as well as environment and charity law.

WWF prefers to work in partnership with the governments, organisations and businesses where possible. Watson says: “In the corporate arena, WWF’s policy is to engage positively and constructively with business and industry in areas of mutual benefit, so that we can develop partnerships, fund-raise and stimulate innovation within business. We believe that creative business and other partnerships are often an essential part of developing solution. But the WWF will challenge bad business practices where we think this is necessary.”

The legal department has to take a very strategic campaigning approach to its work. On the one hand this requires the development of ideas in close liaison with staff who have the relevant expertise, while on the other understanding the broader communications and public relation implications of that work.

After spending almost four years as an associate in the environmental law group at Denton Hall (now Denton Wilde Sapte), Watson jumped ship and took a 15-month sabbatical, during which time he worked as a volunteer for the Environment Liaison Centre International in Nairobi. There he coordinated a network of developing countries and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on the Biodiversity Convention, one of the two principal treaties to come out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The convention addresses the rate at which species are being made extinct.

Upon his return to the UK in 1996, Watson joined WWF-UK, initially as a conservation officer. In this position he had specific responsibility within WWF-UK and the WWF network to identify, produce and promulgate policy to influence the Biodiversity Convention process at national and international level, and to report on developments under the convention that may, in turn, influence the direction of WWF policy and field work.

In 2000, Watson was appointed as WWF-UK’s legal adviser. Working alongside Carol Hatton, his role is split fifty-fifty between advising on a variety of contentious issues and programmatic work. His main focus at the moment is WWF-UK’s wildlife trade campaign, which seeks to address the relative ineffectiveness of the UK’s legal system in stemming the tide of illegal wildlife trade.

“Globally, the illegal wildlife trade may be second only to the international drugs trade in value and can have a devastating impact on severely endangered species,” says Watson. “Through anomalies in English legislation, it is possible to be arrested for selling a common frog, a protected UK species, but not for selling a South China tiger, a species on the brink of extinction.”

The WWF is seeking a change in law to recommend that such offences become arrestable and the maximum penalty be increased from two to five years imprisonment. Other aims include raising the judiciary’s awareness of wildlife trade issues and persuading the Home Office to adopt stricter enforcement of the laws and issue sentencing guidelines.

On the contentious side, Watson has advised on disputes concerning copyright and trademark infringement and internet domain names, defamation, data protection and complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. Most significantly, Watson advised WWF-UK in the successful case against the World Wrestling Federation.

In June, the House of Lords ruled that the initials ‘WWF’ were owned by the World Wildlife Fund and not the World Wrestling Federation. The conservation agency said the use of the initials by the wrestlers could confuse environmentally concerned internet users who might have found themselves viewing images of wrestlers instead of animals. Partner Graham Clark of Edwin Coe solicitors in Lincolns Inn advised the WWF on the case.

Despite the case against the World Wrestling Federation, Watson notes that the WWF uses litigation only as a last resort after alternative courses of action have been exhausted.

Earlier in the year, Watson was heavily involved in WWF’s work in relation to filing a shareholder’s resolution at BP’s annual general meeting on 18 April. The resolution, which was backed by a coalition of UK, European, Canadian and US investors, called on the company to disclose how it measures the risk to shareholder value from drilling in environmentally or culturally sensitive areas, particularly the proposed exploitation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska’s remote north-east corner.

The resolution echoed investment guidelines issued by the Association of British Insurers, which encourages companies to adopt best practice and fuller disclosure when responding to social, ethical and environmental risks. The guidelines call on companies to confirm in their annual reports that they have assessed these risks and are managing them to preserve or enhance the value of the business.

Currently, Watson is advising on projects in the areas of environmental justice, corporate accountability, foreign direct (the ability to sue multinational corporations in the UK for their activities overseas), climate change, toxic chemicals, illegal deforestation by logging companies, marine and freshwater issues. WWF-UK’s legal department does not have a legal budget, so it relies on the voluntary donation of time and expertise from a wide network of commercial and NGO lawyers, academics and students. Watson says: “We’ve been fortunate to have a string of highly capable and motivated interns who have been willing to work for us for little or no money and whose contribution has been immensely valuable.”

Watson and his team have no formal pro bono links with a single firm but Daniel Lawrence and Jackie O’Keefe, assistants at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Denton Wilde Sapte respectively, have assisted Watson in the past. He also has strong relationships with Leigh Day & Co senior partner Martyn Day and Pamela Castle of CMS Cameron McKenna, formerly a trustee of WWF and the current chair of the UK Environmental Law Association.
Niall Watson
Legal Adviser

Organisation WWF-UK
Sector Charity
Annual income £30m, mainly from public contributions
Legal capability Two
Annual Legal Spend £3-£5m
Legal adviser Niall Watson
Reporting to Deputy chief operating officer Les Jones
Main law firms None