Leigh Day and the Human Rights Lawyers Association hosted a full house on Wednesday 22 March when Claire McGregor and David Hart QC from 1 Crown Office Row joined Sarah Sackman from Francis Taylor Building, Adrienne Copithorne from Richard Buxton LLP and Rebekah Read from Leigh Day to speak about how to become an environmental lawyer.
The audience heard how on her first day working in environmental law, Claire McGregor boarded a plane to the Ivory Coast to work on the Trafigura case involving 30,000 claimants suing oil multinational Trafigura for compensation following a toxic oil spill. The case went on to become the largest group litigation case in the UK. More recently she has been involved in group litigation concerning odours from an animal by-products rendering plant. There has been animal processing on site for more than 100 years, with early uses involving maggot breeding; before the First World War, it was thought that the fumes of the maggotorium cured common ailments. Today it converts animal carcass into useful proteins.
Adrienne Copithorne was drawn to environmental law as an ideal combination of public law and land law. She described cases as diverse as judicially reviewing planning permissions in order to prevent cockle harvest decline, challenging London park closures for ticketed music festivals, and acting for the owners of a large country estate affected by noise from RAF Harrier jets.
For Sarah Sackman, the bread and butter of environmental law practice was less about being Erin Brockovich and more likely to involve sewage, bats and butterflies. To be effective you need to consider regulatory, EU, public and criminal law, and to be able to use them creatively. Describing environmental law as engaging socio-economic collective rights more often than human rights, its importance lies in ensuring that decisions affecting the environment include public participation and consideration of sound evidence.
Rebekah Read spoke about her experience working on the Shell Niger Delta case, which involved claims brought in the UK on behalf of two Nigerian communities who suffered following large scale oil spills from the energy company’s pipelines in the Niger Delta. The case settled in 2015 for £55 million damages.
David Hart QC cited site visits as one of the many perks of being an environmental lawyer – including his experience staring into an electrostatic precipitator in a disused power station, and more recently inspecting shingly beaches and being treated to a fully-foraged meal afterwards. He is currently working on claims for damages for the loss of property values caused by Japanese knotweed.
A lively question and answer followed. Discussing the likely effect of Brexit and the Great Repeal Bill on environmental law, Sarah Sackman suggested that the real risk would be the political temptation to cut “green” tape in order to fast track infrastructure projects in pursuit of economic growth, at the cost of environmental protections. David Hart thought that although the system of EU-inspired environmental impact assessment would survive, the EU’s strict habitat protection laws may be vulnerable to attack from pro-business political interests.
For those keen to practice in the area, many of the speakers underlined the need to have an intellectual curiosity for the science underpinning a particular environmental law case, a willingness to engage with complex legal issues and a desire to work for a wide variety of clients. The panel encouraged anyone interested in a career in the area to sign up to the UK Environmental Law Association, and the Environmental Law Foundation.
The last word went to environmental law expert Richard Buxton, who suggested that beauty could be found in small cases and cautioned against proceeding through your career with too specific a set of objectives in mind.