Duty of care enshrined into environment law

Five of the eight young plaintiffs in Sharma v Minister for the Environment (duty of care)
Five of the eight young plaintiffs. From left: Ava Princi, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ambrose Hayes, Veronica Hester, Laura Kirwan. Equity Generation Lawyers

Eight high school students today welcomed final orders in their historic court case that found the Federal Environment Minister has a duty to avoid causing children harm when approving a new coal project.

In his initial Sharma v Minister for the Environment Federal Court judgement on May 27, Justice Bromberg found that carbon emissions released from mining and burning fossil fuels will exacerbate climate change causing personal injury and death to Australian children.

Following additional submissions from both parties, as requested by Justice Bromberg, today’s ruling entrenches the duty of care into Australian law.

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At this morning’s hearing, the court made a declaration that the Minister has a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury or death to Australian children when exercising her powers to approve the Vickery extension project under national environment law.

The Minister was further ordered to pay the students’ legal costs in bringing the claim.

“It’s heartbreaking that young people even have to take to the courts to fight for basic protection against the climate crisis, when we’re so obviously facing its impacts right now, with temperatures

increasing year upon year and natural disasters taking lives all around the globe,” said Anjali Sharma.

“But after too many years of politicians turning a blind eye, today’s historic ruling will make it harder for them to continue to approve large-scale fossil fuel projects that will only fast track the climate crisis. We are delighted that the law of the land now states that the government has a duty to avoid causing harm to young people.”

At the centre of the legal case is the pending approval of Whitehaven Coal’s Vickery coal mine extension project in NSW. The Court’s ruling in May found that emissions from the expansion would foreseeably expose the children to a risk of injury and death. Any approval would therefore risk breaching the ‘duty of care.’

However, it is now incumbent on Environment Minister Sussan Ley to decide how to proceed with the approval process.

“Throughout the world, countries such as Canada and Ireland have promised no new coal projects. However, Australia remains a global outlier, with no firm plan other than continuing to encourage new fossil fuel projects,” said Ava Princi.

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“We hope this ruling will be an important step to getting Australia – and the world – on the right path to a safer future for us all.”

Lawyer for the students, David Barnden, said: “Today’s historical outcome provides a safe harbour for the Environment Minister to act sensibly to not only protect the environment, but to ensure that she does not increase the risk of death and injury to children by approving new coal mines.

“It is now law in Australia that people in power have a responsibility to not harm children. We hope this breaks the political deadlock that is condemning young people to a treacherous future.”

ADDED: Environment Minister Sussan Ley will appeal the ruling.