Phil Michaels: Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth in-house lawyer Phil Michaels forced Gordon Brown into a headline-making U-turn last month. Joanne Harris finds out more

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown made himself very unpopular in November 2005. His decision to scrap the Operating and Financial Review (OFR), which required companies to report on their environmental and social impact, prompted an outcry across the City.

While many groups merely talked, one organisation swung into action. In January 2006 environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FOE) launched legal action against the Chancellor and Trade Secretary Alan Johnson. The application for judicial review of the decision bore fruit when Brown made a U-turn and agreed to consult on the future of the OFR – as well as pay FOE’s legal costs. It was a sizeable victory for the one-man band that is Phil Michaels, the sole in-house lawyer at FOE.

“A legal team of one may seem very small, but compared with other NGOs [non-governmental organisations] we’re very lucky. We’re on the verge of recruiting a second lawyer,” says Michaels, who is enthusiastic at the prospect of being able to tackle a larger number of cases.

Michaels has been in-house at FOE for nearly five years, having come from legacy firm Theodore Goddard, where he was a media litigator. While in private practice he undertook voluntary work for FOE and got to know the organisation well. Making the decision to apply for the job of in-house lawyer was therefore an easy one.

Michaels carries out public and environmental legal campaigns in the UK and Europe. “The legal capacity has always been focused on providing advice to the organisation and where appropriate bringing legal actions on behalf of FOE,” he explains. “We also work very closely with our 200 FOE groups around the country and with smaller environmental and social NGOs.

“What we’re particularly looking to do is to act for environmental and community groups that otherwise wouldn’t have access to legal advice.”

Michaels is acutely aware of how powerful FOE can be, whether acting on its own behalf or helping other organisations. To increase its influence, he has spent the past year piloting a new venture for FOE. The Rights & Justice Centre is designed to provide legal advice and support for small NGOs, community groups and Citizens’ Advice Bureaux on environmental and social issues. The pilot’s success bodes well for the future.

“It’s going to be the UK’s first pro bono or affordable legal advice centre for environmental public law, and it’s going to do in the environmental public law area what groups like Shelter, Liberty and the Child Poverty Action Group have done so successfully in their own sectors. It’s groundbreaking for the environmental movement and provides [FOE] with phenomenal opportunities,” he says.

The centre currently has 30 open matters, although Michaels admits that most of those will not reach the courts. Many issues dealt with by FOE involve information requests. Judicial reviews such as the OFR application are rare, although the FOE currently has another two underway. The first is challenging Northern Ireland’s implementation of a European directive on the treatment of sewage; the second opposes a Metropolitan Police decision to treat London cyclists’ monthly gathering, known as Critical Mass, as an unlawful demonstration, threatening multiple arrests.

Michaels instructs barristers directly and has a good, but not exclusive, relationship with public law specialists Blackstone Chambers and Matrix Chambers. Blackstone junior Michael Fordham is acting for FOE on the Critical Mass judicial review, while Nigel Pleming QC of 39 Essex Street was involved in the OFR review.

Occasionally, FOE will go to solicitors for pro bono advice, but this is rare. Charity specialist Bates Wells & Braithwaite handles corporate legal work for the group, but Michaels has no involvement with this.

The future of the FOE legal team is bright. In late January, Michaels received word that the charity had been authorised to take on legal aid cases, which he describes as a “huge step forward”. The authorisation means FOE’s expertise is opened up to a much wider group of people.

He also hopes that, in a few years, FOE will be able to provide a training contract for a young solicitor, expanding on its current internship programme.

Michaels will also work with his predecessor, barrister Peter Roderick, in a new and innovative international programme to enforce climate change law. Roderick has set up the Climate Justice Programme, under the auspices of FOE International, in an attempt to face up to what Michaels describes as the “biggest threat” to the environment today.

In the UK, Michaels and his expanding team will continue to fight with passion and conviction against threats to the environment and society.

Michaels sums up: “The environment movement as a whole is evolving. Friends of the Earth is increasingly about working with disadvantaged and disaffected communities and it’s increasingly about issues of environmental justice.

“It’s a really challenging and exciting job. It’s working with phenomenal people – highly motivated, highly professional people; and it’s working in an area where everybody cares passionately about what we’re trying to do. The law is just one tool used to achieve those ends.”

Phil Michaels
In-house lawyer
Friends of the Earth

Organisation Friends of the Earth
Sector Campaigning
Turnover £3.8m charitable, £5.4m non-charitable
Employees Approximately 170
Legal spend Negligible
Legal capacity One
In-house lawyer Phil Michaels
Reporting to Senior management
External advisers Blackstone Chambers, Matrix Chambers