National Pro Bono Week – My ELF roots

By James Corbet Burcher

I first worked with ELF as an Advice & Referral Volunteer in 2008, assisting members of the public to get written advice and representation in environmental matters: often judicial reviews to planning decisions raising EIA and varied public law grounds.

Looking back, the legal landscape was somewhat different: there was no Aarhus costs protection (just the Sullivan Report), there were few arguments over national and local policy interpretation, and the major focus on points of European law.

However, many of the access to justice issues remain just as they are today: limited resource, masses of documentation, ticking clock time limits and a need to explain the surgical/forensic adopted by the High Court, forbidding the re-run of the merits.

Studying Environmental Law
Using the ELF internship as a central plank of my application, I then secured a place on the UCL LLM Programme specialising in Environmental Law, arguably the leading programme in the country and personally the most enjoyable year that I spent in education. Many alumni of the Environmental Law specialism are in full-time practice specialising on environmental law matters, both in the UK and internationally. A significant number of those have worked with ELF.

The ELF experience proved a hugely important grounding to my studies, being able to set such topics as public participation, consultation and compliance with EIA/SEA issues in a real-world and this inspiring a dissertation on the future of judicial review to major infrastructure decisions under the Planning Act 2008.

Practice at the Bar
Having been called to the Bar in 2011, I now pursue a specialist planning and environmental law practice from No5 Chambers.

I have assisted on ELF’s current scheme in four cases, alongside colleagues from No5. Although I will not cite specifics, each has involved very similar issues to those I first encountered as an ELF intern.

Like many junior barristers, I secured valuable experience working for public interest Claimants. For example, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to appear in the first case to be heard before the Planning Court: Jones v English Heritage, a permission decision heard on the inaugural date, on behalf of a claimant who wished to preserve a 1066 battlefield site. The dynamics of running a claimant-based case for an ordinary member of the public cannot be taught, only learnt from experience. I was fortunate to have secured that in abundance with ELF.

At the same time, pro bono work teaches one hugely important practical lessons when acting for a Defendant or Interested Party. Some are purely self-defensive, how to head off an emerging legal challenge. But above all, one appreciates the broader context within which the disputes arise, and the courts’ recognition of the importance of access to justice for all.

In summary, ELF is a unique institution within public interest environmental law practice in the UK. It has been a milestone in many junior barristers’ careers and long may it do so.