Environmental law encompasss the complex system of treaties, regulations, statutes, conventions and case law that govern how humans can interact with the natural world. Planning lawyers use their understanding of environmental regulations to advise public and private clients on a range of issues, from acquiring licenses and permits for business or building projects to meeting environmental due diligence requirements. This is a broad area of the law, with domestic and international practitioners, as well as a range of subspecialties (for example, native title claims or biodiversity management).
At the federal level, Australian environmental law is primarily overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, an agency tasked with addressing a range of issues from air quality and environment conservation, to fuel quality standards and land contamination. The central piece of federal legislation is the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Individual states and territories have their own environmental protection acts, which are supported by various other pieces of legislation, as well as certain international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.
While environmental law is often seen as having certain tacit objectives – such as the promotion of long-term ecological sustainability – it’s important to note that not all work in environmental and planning law is conducted with such ends in mind. You may find yourself representing organisations that wish to access natural resources, construct large building projects, defend against environmental lawsuits, and more.
The complexity and scope of environmental and planning law is both a blessing and a curse. There are various issues addressed by environmental law, from biodiversity protection and major project applications to pollution control and waste management. Furthermore, domestic and international legislation is continually evolving as separate jurisdictions approach the legal challenges of environmental management in different ways. This makes environmental law an excellent match for flexible and curious graduates who aren’t afraid to invest time in figuring out which area of environmental law is the best match for them.
You’ll also have the opportunity to work with a range of non-legal experts, including ecologists, architects and archaeologists. Given the complexities of ‘ownership’ when it comes to the environment, you may be surprised by the number of stakeholders in environmental cases. These may include the government, businesses, local property holders, indigenous group and advocacy organisations.
As in most other legal specialities, graduates who pursue a career in environmental and planning law can expect close supervision while they learn new skills, master relevant legislation and develop relationships with their clients. Given that the environment is highly regulated, graduates are often required to perform substantial research before producing reports. Fortunately, there are often also opportunities for more hands-on experience, and graduates can look forward to eventually working with clients of their own.
The environmental law aspect of this speciality is fairly resilient in the face of economic fluctuations. By contrast, the planning aspect is subject to change in response to economic downturns, which can have a marked effect on the rate at which new developments are submitted, approved and constructed. In either area, you will be able to build a stable career in the public or private sector.