Fresh on the heels of his visit to Melbourne Law School, later this month Chief Justice French will be speaking at the fundraising dinner celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office (NSW EDO). He will do so at a time when government funding cuts for the nation’s environmental community legal centres mean that they are under threat (including of late in the NT and WA). The NSW EDO appears to be withstanding national funding cuts and those by the NSW government in 2013 (see this piece by Amelia Thorpe from UNSW) and continues to work on national and local matters – particularly case law, capacity building and reform.
Based on his speech to the same organisation five years ago, French CJ’s speech this time around is expected to be a fillip for the NSW EDO. He concluded his speech previously with these words of encouragement:
its record in the face of challenges posed by limited resources is one of which those who do work with it, those who have worked with it, and those involved in its governance, can take some pride. It is an ongoing reminder to all, of the proposition which is good at the local and global level that our environment must be respected and protected.
In 2010 French CJ also spoke of his own experience acting against mining and forestry interests when a practitioner noting that those experiences ‘brought moments of euphoria and humour, and occasionally mild depression’.
The manner in which French CJ spoke about his past environmental law practice, leaves us wondering how he might respond to a future environmental law case. During his term, French CJ has only encountered environmental law matters in a tangential way (for instance over the past twelve months cases concerning standing in planning laws and the validity of the carbon price legislation and over the longer term cases concerning water rights – ICM and Arnold).
While he will have a second chance to appear before the NSW EDO, during French CJ’s tenure at the Court, the NSW EDO has not yet had the chance to appear before him (the NSW EDO has only once argued a case at the High Court). It was granted special leave to challenge a water plan made under the Water Management Act 2000 (NSW) but that challenge became futile upon the passage of amending legislation. Moreover, despite the fact that Australia’s federal environmental statute has been in effect for fifteen years there has still not been a challenge to that Act (Senator Bob Brown came close in 2008; his attempt was frustrated by executive action making his case moot).
However there might be a chance soon to see the NSW EDO at the High Court and to read French CJ’s views about contemporary laws that regulate the environment. Cases are plentiful in the federal court system and the NSW EDO is representing the Mackay Conservation Group in one its high profile, symbolic and community-funded challenges to the approval by the federal government of the controversial Adani coal mine in Queensland.