Environmental defenders funding cuts favour Goliath

A former judge on SA’s Environment, Resources and Development Court, Christine Trenorden, has criticised the Commonwealth Government’s decision to cut $10 million in funding for non-profit environmental lawyers: “When residents from the tiny town of Bulga won a three-year court battle to stop Rio Tinto expanding an open-cut coalmine beside them, it was hailed as a victory for David over Goliath. Yet the type of legal aid that helped those Hunter Valley residents last year may soon be much less widely available.” She says Environmental Defenders Offices are an important counterbalance to well-resourced governments and corporations in disputes about the impact of projects on local environments.

Mass murderer can sue for a computer

Mass murderer Julian Knight has been granted leave to challenge a decision to ban him from access to a computer in his prison cell, which he says he needs to prepare for legal proceedings in the Supreme and High Courts. Knight has been declared a vexatious litigant because he frequently launches futile law suits, which means he now needs the Court’s permission to sue. He is expected to challenge the Corrections Amendment (Parole) Bill 2014 if it is passed, because it names him as the only prisoner who must be denied parole unless his death is imminent. The High Court has previously struck down a NSW law that purported to keep a specific prisoner locked up after his release date. However, the Victorian bill differs in that Knight is serving seven consecutive life sentences, and eligibility for parole is a matter for the executive rather than the judiciary.

Cardinal says Church should be suable

The former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, has told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse he no longer supports the Catholic Church’s position that it could not be sued: “Whatever position was taken by the lawyers during the litigation, or by lawyers or individuals within the Archdiocese following the litigation, my own view is that the Church in Australia should be able to be sued in cases of this kind.” Cardinal Pell was in charge of the Archdiocese of Sydney when it ran what is now known as “the Ellis defence”. In Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church v Ellis [2007] NSWCA 117, the NSW Court of Appeal held that because priests were not employees, the Church was not vicariously liable for their actions. This effectively means that individual priests can be sued, but the Church can not—which diminishes the ability of victims of child sexual abuse to obtain compensation.

Superhero strategy for self-represented litigants

When comic book lawyer Matt Murdock couldn’t appear in court due to speculation that he was the blind, acrobatic superhero Daredevil, he came up with an alternative plan: coaching his clients to represent themselves in court. Now a Melbourne law firm has set up a similar scheme: “offering ‘court coaching’ for a lower fee to those unable to afford, or who do not want, full legal representation. This involves a one-hour conversation with [a barrister] who gives clients tips on how to present themselves and their arguments in court.” The new service reflects a developing trend in Victorian courts; the County Court has established a dedicated coordinator to assist self-represented litigants, and the Supreme Court says they make up “about 20 per cent of all [civil] litigants, compared with 3 per cent of people facing criminal charges”.

Fencing disputes keep mediators busy

According to the Dispute Resolution Centre of Victoria, a free mediation service provided by the Victorian Government, about one third of the disputes they deal with relate to fences and boundaries. The centre’s director, Gina Ralston, said, “Typically, neighbours may disagree over the condition of the fence, the kind of fence needed to replace it, which way the rails should go, when it should be replaced, who should do the work and the overall cost.” In 2013, a parliamentary committee reviewed the Fencing Act 1968 and recommended sweeping changes. A bill to replace it with a new Fencing Act is currently before parliament.

Uncertainty over legal aid cuts

Before the federal election, the Coalition promised to cut legal aid funding by $41.3 million. The chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services group, Shane Duffy, has called on the government to specify which programs will be cut, to allow organisations to plan for the new financial environment. “It will mean the withdrawal of services in three areas of law—civil law and family law and our increased focus on child protection around the country,” he said.

Smoke not harmful enough for class action

Smoke from a fire in a coal mine near the town of Morwell has caused residents “sore eyes, sore throats, and shortness of breath”. About 70 people have approached lawyers about the possibility of a negligence class action, due to concerns about the mining company’s handling of the fire. However, lawyers say a successful personal injury claim would require “total impairment of over 5 per cent and most people aren’t going to get that. You might have sore eyes and a sore throat for six months but it won’t add up to over 5 per cent.” Claims by businesses for smoke damage and lost income might be open.