California dreamin’

Paul Stookes gave up a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to become an environmental lawyer after a trip to smoggy LA. Emma Vere-Jones meets the Head of the Environmental Law Foundation

The top of an LA hotel is a rather strange place for a career crisis. But that’s where Paul Stookes was when he decided to become a lawyer.

Fifteen years ago, Stookes was living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. As a production manager for acts such as Madness, Van Morrison and the Communards, he spent three months at a time touring Europe and the US. Today he heads small London-based charity Environmental Law Foundation (ELF).

So why the change of direction? “After 10 years of working in an industry which is very self-serving, I felt I needed a change,” he says. “I was standing at the top of a hotel in LA in the mid-1980s, looking down at the smog below me, and realising, like many people, that something was wrong.

“I left that wanting to go into a job that would help people – somewhat naively I chose law,” he jokes. So it’s not that surprising that he’s now working for a charity.

After his training, he spent two years with civil rights firm BM Birnberg & Co, and then moved to South East firm Berry & Berry. Obviously, the thought of the LA smog still bugged him, because it was at Berry & Berry he began to undertake planning and environmental work and became a member of the ELF.

This was followed by a three-year stint at the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in an environmental management role – an opportunity that allowed him to “prevent pollution rather than clean it up”, as he puts it. And finally, in March 2001, he reached his current resting place at the ELF, in a role which ties in both his legal and environmental knowledge.

The ELF is a small charity that provides environmental legal advice to the community. It was established in 1992 by a broad group of environmentalists, lawyers and scientists. The foundation has just four employees and around 20 volunteers who have either a legal or an environmental science background.

As well as the small number of employees, the foundation has a membership of more than 200 people. Of its 200 members, the foundation instructs 86 solicitors, 31 barristers and 20 consultants throughout the UK. The foundation deals with the initial inquiry from the public and then, if necessary, refers the cases on to the appropriate charity members.

Since its formation, the ELF has been contacted by many thousands of people with a wide variety of concerns relating to the environment. It has referred more than 1,300 cases to practitioner members on behalf of local communities faced with environmental problems that otherwise might never have been voiced at all.

Originally, the foundation was merely a referral service, but now it also offers an outreach programme and a community development service. In the outreach programme, a small team of ELF members – usually a solicitor, a QC and a consultant – run workshops for community groups on relevant environmental issues.

The work is extremely varied, says Stookes: “From air pollution from existing factories, to opposition against a proposal to build a wind farm.”

While a wind farm might sound exactly the kind of thing that an environmental lawyer should be supporting, Stookes says that there are all sorts of other issues that need to be considered – visual impact, noise disruption in building and development, for example.

Stookes says that this is one of the difficulties with environmental law. “There are so many complex areas, and that’s why, to some extent, the law hasn’t got to grips with the area. The law likes to see certainty, but in environmental work you don’t have that. In many cases there may be a huge indirect impact which doesn’t always make it onto the discussion table at the planning stage. For instance, if you have plans to build 1,000 houses, there may well be an indirect effect on greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn may have an affect on global warming.

“It’s often hard for people to understand the concepts they need to be considering,” he adds, hence the community workshops. As a consequence, a large part of the foundation’s time is spent helping to educate communities in environmental issues. Last year the foundation received a Times Justice Law Award for the organisation that had done most to widen access to justice.

But while the work may be rewarding, it isn’t going to make the lawyers rich. “They’re certainly not in it for the money,” says Stookes. The lawyers are expected to provide the initial consultation free of charge, and then charge on a costs-only basis or a reduced fee.

Despite this, there are still a large number of cases which do not proceed because the individual or community group cannot afford the costs. And Stookes says that changes to public funding under the Access to Justice Act 1999 have made it more difficult for people to get help. Previously, any firm or practitioner could apply to the Legal Aid Board for funding, but now they must have a certificate from the Legal Services Commission. As a result, fewer of the foundation’s members are now able to apply for funding.

But despite these difficulties the quantity of work is continuing to grow. In 2001 ELF responded to more than 700 inquiries and referred more than 200 of these on to members.
Stookes says that the foundation has still not reached its full potential. In the future, he envisages the foundation taking a more preventative rather than curative role. “We want to be at the point where we can assist people before the problem is actually created,” he says. To do this, the foundation hopes to be more involved at the policy-making stage. It has already responded to consultation papers on group representative claims, the London plans on spatial development, air quality, noise and biodiversity and EU funding for environmental non-governmental organisations.

But despite his future hopes, Stookes also enjoys the case work. “It’s always particularly pleasing to see a successful outcome in a case,” he says. One case sticks in his mind. Last year, Richard Buxton Solicitors, acting on behalf a group of Canterbury residents, won a High Court case against the Secretary of State, who had granted permission for the development of 60 acres of farmland by Canterbury College. The case was not publicly funded, which meant costs of £126,000 would have come directly from the
residents’ pockets if the case had been lost.

Thankfully their gamble paid off and Stookes says the judgment was significant because it showed that the Secretary of State hadn’t even “considered the environmental impact of the development”.

Stookes’ elation about the case is obvious and while environmental law may not seem as glamorous as rock ‘n’ roll, he says that his current job is far more satisfying.
Paul Stookes
Chief executive
Environmental Law Foundation

Organisation Environmental Law Foundation
Sector Charity
Employees Four, plus approximately 20 volunteers at any one given time
Legal capability One solicitor, one barrister
Chief executive Paul Stookes
Reporting to Board of 12 trustees headed by Stephen Hockman QC of 6 Pump Court
Law firms The foundation instructs 86 solicitors, 31 barristers, 20 consultants