LAST MONTH, a company accused of operating a hospital incinerator in breach of its licence was fined pounds 6,000 with costs of pounds 5,500 by Uxbridge magistrates. The proceedings were the culmination of a campaign by Residents Against Incinerator Nuisance (Rain) who live near Hillingdon Hospital, west London.
Rain's case was taken up by the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) and referred to Rubinstein Callingham Polden & Gale, a firm of solicitors in Gray's Inn, London, who successfully approached the London Waste Regulatory Authority to prosecute the incinerator company, Clinical Energy Ltd. The site manager and managing director were also given conditional discharges in one of the first prosecutions of individuals under directors' liability for environmental mismanagement.
Martin Polden is the senior partner of Rubinstein Callingham and the founding chairman of ELF, which was established in January last year in response, he says, to the charge by environmentalists that lawyers were not doing enough to oppose the 'onrush of environmental depredation'.
ELF is not, Mr Polden explains, 'just another lawyers' organisation'. Its co-founder is Diana Schumacher, environmentalist, lecturer and broadcaster, and the roll of its executive committee and advisory council has scientists of many disciplines sitting alongside senior lawyers, planning specialists and economists.
'At the outset, we insisted on a combination of disciplines and attitudes,' Mr Polden says. 'We have to be able to look at issues in the round. A lot of the lawyers are specialists, but they still have to be generalist in their thinking.'
Not all the problems brought to ELF's attention have legal solutions. 'In many ways, lawyers are just the facilitators. ELF's role is to help citizens have a voice. Local people are often the most knowledgeable about local issues, but they need to be listened to. We all tend to walk through local opinion rather than listen - it's human nature.'
ELF is funded from a variety of sources: members' subscriptions, some money comes from National Westminster Bank (the bank's chairman, Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, is an ELF patron, as is Sir Yehudi Menuhin), some from environmental groups and charities and a lot in the way of time and experience from volunteer support. Now, says Mr Polden, the aim is to put in place a programme for long-term funding.
Cases accepted by ELF's network of practitioners are assessed initially on a pro-bono basis. After that fee levels are based on legal aid rates. Legal aid funding, however, is rarely granted to those helped via ELF; for one thing planning appeals and public inquiries are not eligible. The free initial assessment has the added benefit that it helps to fund raise, Mr Polden says.
More than 400 cases have been referred to ELF from citizens' advice bureaux, law centres and law firms all over the country, with some 140 cases judged suitable for further action. Initially, the organisation worked from borrowed offices in Kings College, west London, but it recently moved into its own premises in Kingsway. It is staffed by 'a lot of volunteers', one full-time worker and a part-time administrator, Glyn Turner, formerly principal solicitor with Thames Water Authority.
The practice was created seven years ago following the merger of two long-established firms. One was a commercially oriented practice that had also undertaken a lot of civil liberties work in the 1960s. The other had a long history of work in the publishing industry.
'Giving time to this kind of activity was very much a long-standing tradition with both the firms,' Mr Polden says. 'And our size - 14 partners - lends itself to the work, because we are not departmentalised. It appals me how early on lawyers are being forced to specialise. That trend has got to be corrected because it is not doing the industry much good.'
ELF is also developing a line in supporting business on environmental matters. 'It makes commercial sense for businesses to be run properly,' Mr Polden says. 'Clearly it is also important for those who back them; the banks and lending institutions. We have already developed a database of dos and don'ts, highlighting the practical pitfalls.'
ELF enjoys cross-party recognition in Parliament, Mr Polden says. 'People see the need for an organisation like ELF because it is about equality of opportunity. Through it, a small community can face up to a larger organisation and be listened to.'
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