National Pro Bono Week – ELF

By David Hart QC

Today is day 1 of the National Pro Bono Week, and I would like to tell you a little bit about the Environmental Law Foundation, and me, its Chair. After all, ELF has for the last 25 years been a leading provider of pro bono help for those facing environmental and planning problems – giving them advice and representation. So I think we have as much history and experience as any group around today.

Many barristers started their advocacy careers as I did, giving representation for free, in my case in what is now the Employment Tribunal. But you have to have a way for those in need to be able to get in touch. These days ELF provides that, at all stages of peoples’ careers, right from the beginning. Via its university clinics, ELF gives students the opportunity to do environmental and planning cases for real. So this helps both sides, the client or community group who would otherwise not get advice, and the young lawyer (at whatever stage) who would like to broaden their experience.

I started chairing ELF in July 2016. I have been doing environmental work since about 1990, and pro bono work cases have arrived on an ad hoc basis for some years. I have acted in long-running planning enquiries and potential civil claims involving windfarms. I got involved usually because people contacted me out of the blue and asked me to help. I have posted on my chambers blog here for the last 5 or so years, and I am amazed how many people emailed me asking really important questions about environmental law. So I was delighted to be asked to chair ELF this summer, because this gave a greater structure to this pro bono work, and I hope with my experience to be able to motivate people to do more of it via ELF.

I am doing some fascinating work through ELF. I am representing a well-known forager in the Upper Tribunal in receipt of a stop notice which prohibits him from harvesting even the most modest amounts of a beach-growing plant (sea kale) because it grows in a Site of Specific Scientific Interest. We are mounting a major legal challenge to how Natural England interpret their powers under the civil sanctions regime. And I am advising a community group who are directly involved in the Lower Thames Crossing project – designed to provide a further crossing to relieve congestion via the Dartford tunnel/bridge.

This is a perfect cameo of ELF’s role today, ranging from the individual, my forager, with a particular problem, to the group facing a massive project, with implications on a personal level (huge proposed road going by their village) and also with important policy considerations – how Government goes about assessing the climate change implications of road schemes.

I think the most important thing I have learnt about ELF today and those that keep it going is – do not assume you cannot help. Anyone with enthusiasm can play their part, whether as a student looking at a community problem, a junior barrister or solicitor giving initial advice or providing representation, or an experienced planning/environmental advocate in court or at inquiry. All welcome. What matters is whether you are prepared to put in hard work, often in a hurry, to help people out.

So spread the work, both to those who might want our help, and those who might be able to provide it. Just contact Emma Montlake at help2@elflaw.org