Usual suspects line up for new attacks on EDO NSW

JEFF SMITH*

Friends, supporters and observers of EDO NSW may have noticed a new round of attacks on our public interest environmental law office in recent days and weeks, via the usual suspects of the NSW Minerals Council and The Australian newspaper.

While these reports are short on ‘news’ and run long on rehashing earlier attacks on EDO NSW, they are clearly aimed at trying to politicise our role as an independent community legal centre that specialises in public interest environmental law.

Our EDO NSW team takes the sometimes hysterical tone of The Australian’s reporting about our office with a large grain of salt, however, we do find headlines like ‘Public-funded EDO circus must end’ quite offensive. We think many of our supporters will feel the same way.

Last Friday The Australia’s legal correspondent sought to seize on written comments by our outgoing Chair Murray Wilcox AO QC, the distinguished retired Federal Court judge, who reflected on over 6 years at the helm of our Board in his final contribution to EDO NSW, published last month in the 2012/13 annual report.

Readers of this post can assess the content of the most recent stories for themselves here:

As Mr Wilcox noted, the EDO NSW is a law office not a campaign one. Our team is made up of lawyers, scientists and other professionals and support staff, who provide professional, expert and independent legal advice to individuals and community groups. We have clear and robust standards in place to determine when we will take on a case, and indeed when we will provide written advice – namely, that the matter needs to satisfy our public interest guidelines.

We receive funds from a range of sources, including a sizeable proportion which is not taxpayer funds, and we are always scrupulous in ensuring that we meet the obligations set out in funding and grant agreements.

It is also worth noting that when EDO NSW is acting for any client in a litigation matter, such cases are public hearings, and our clients are disclosed on our website and via our annual reports.

Where legal cases we work on end up before a court, which is only a small fraction of the work we do, we act on behalf of community-based clients who have satisfied us – and a senior barrister – that they have rights to be heard under law. Which of course is why our system has courts in the first place, and why due legal process is a core component of our healthy democracy.

*Jeff Smith is the Executive Director of EDO NSW.

FOOTNOTE: Also for the record, the following was sent to The Australian last Friday as a Letter to the Editor.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR, THE AUSTRALIAN
In rehashing mining industry-led criticisms of EDO NSW, your legal correspondent Chris Merritt (Taxpayers still fund anti-coal disputes, 1/11/2013) continues to muddy the waters about the source of grant monies from the Public Purpose Fund of the Law Society of NSW, or PPF. While the NSW Government of the day has always had a consent control over grants made by the PPF Trustees, the actual monies are not taxpayer funds, but rather the accumulated interest earnings on client funds held in solicitors’ trust accounts in NSW. It is a longstanding tradition that the PPF makes regular grants to community legal centres providing public interest services, including EDO NSW, among other recipients. The PPF is fully informed about the work undertaken by EDO NSW as an independent, not-for-profit, specialist public interest environmental law office that has served the community of NSW since 1985.

Jeff Smith
Executive Director

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False choice for public interest environmental law

The Australian Legal Affairs Editor, Chris Merritt (Market model is worth copying for our legal centres, 11 October 2013) recently proposed a false choice between providing Legal Aid for less well-off Australians on criminal charges and ‘protecting trees’ under the law.

Many local communities around NSW have made it very clear that they see a strong public interest in legal protection for the environment and heritage – not only ‘trees’, but water quality, biodiversity including much-loved species like koalas, the integrity of farmland, human health, local amenity, indigenous culture and more.

These local communities also see that their concerns are not addressed by commercial law firms or models. Which is precisely why Australia and NSW have maintained a decades-old tradition of public funding for a range of community legal centres, including public interest environmental law ones.

This meets explicit community demand for independent expert legal advice, which on rare occasions includes courtroom litigation, and more subtly bolsters the overall administration of the legal system by filtering out cases that lack strong legal merit and a substantial public interest element.

Many community members also remain deeply concerned about the planning system and the impact of decisions by governments and public agencies on developments that affect them. Such people will be alarmed at The Australian’s proposition that a ‘market model’ should replace the current approach based on significant public funding.

EDO NSW Executive Director, Jeff Smith

Environmental law academics speak out in support of EDO NSW

Fifty-seven environmental law academics from around Australia have signed on to a letter to Premier Barry O’Farrell outlining the value of public interest work for the environment and the work of EDO NSW specifically.

The editorial by Don Anton, Andrew Macintosh, James Prest and Matthew Zagor in the Canberra Times today is based on this letter, and highlights EDO NSW’s important place in both the broader community and the legal profession.

Previous media coverage of our funding situation is listed in our last bulletin.