Environment

Environment

Ben Standing

Browne Jacobson LLP

University: University of Birmingham
Degree: International commerce

Issues such as climate change and the need for alternative energy sources make environmental laws more important than ever. Environmental regulations seek to limit pollution and to minimise the impact of human activity on the natural world. This sweeping objective means that environmental lawyers are involved in a wide range of matters, from health and safety, risk management, contaminated land, waste, renewable energy and environmental finance; to commercial and property transactions, nuclear law and litigation. Clients can include individuals, community groups, companies of all sizes, local authorities and governments.


Ben Standing’s career choices have always been driven by his passions, rather than the potential pay packet. His interest in law was first ignited during his undergraduate years at the University of Birmingham. “I studied labour economics as part of my degree and one of the modules was employment law. I really enjoyed it and decided to study the Graduate Diploma in Law – my interest just kept growing from there,” he explains.

After jumping through the qualification hoops with ease, Ben secured a training contract at Browne Jacobson. “It’s always quite hectic, being a trainee,” he recalls. “You get pulled in all sorts of directions and get on with some teams more than others, but I really enjoyed the experience. It’s all about finding your niche and the people you can work with.”

That niche turned out to be environmental law, which involves issues that are close to Ben’s heart. In fact, Browne Jacobson’s prestigious environmental and public planning practice was a key reason that Ben chose to apply to train at the firm. He has not been disappointed – since joining, he has risen through the ranks to represent bodies such as Natural England and has even played a role in the creation of a new Welsh environmental protection body, Natural Resources Wales (NRW). He describes the diversity of the practice area: “A lot of environmental law focuses on property. My team primarily represents public sector clients – such as local councils and environmental bodies – but we also work alongside our colleagues in the property team, whose clients are often in the private sector. We look at environmental issues which come up in relation to land – how they affect planning permission, and sale and purchase agreements when land is sold. We also advise local authorities and private bodies in relation to the contaminated land regime. Another aspect of our work is reviewing environmental reports to look at potential issues that could arise regarding liability and identify relevant clauses which could therefore be required. I personally help to advise public bodies, such as Natural England, on environmental impact assessments and matters concerning sites of special scientific interest. My work on environmental impact assessment in relation to agriculture for the Welsh Government sees me travelling all over Wales to present cases in front of planning inspectors.”

Ins and outs of judicial review

Public and administrative law is another important element of the practice. Judicial review is central to this area and, as a representative of several public bodies, Ben spends a lot of his time defending clients against judicial review challenges. “Our job is to make sure that the decisions which public bodies enter into are lawfully made and cannot be reversed or quashed,” he explains. “The first stage is the permission stage, where someone submits a claim and the defending party then has 21 days to respond by submitting summary grounds of resistance. A decision is then made by the court on whether to grant permission for the claimant to progress the matter; he or she is only allowed to do so if there is an arguable case which justifies full investigation of the substantive merits. If permission is granted, we move on to the substantive stage. In our practice, often matters don’t go to a substantive hearing because we are successful at the permission stage. However, if necessary we will robustly defend our client’s decision in court.”

When it comes to judicial review, a lot depends on the cards you are dealt initially. “The point at which we become involved has an impact,” admits Ben. “If you’re instructed when a decision is being made, you look to ensure that all the correct procedures have been followed and that the regulations are being complied with. A common reason for challenge is that the body has not adequately explained in writing its reasons for doing something. Coming up with a reasoned, logical decision and explaining why you have made it is the best way to defend against judicial review. However, if you’re instructed after a decision has already been made, you just have to make the best of the situation and try to collect evidence to explain why the body has made its decision. In the worst-case scenario, you have to advise your client that it has made a mistake.”

“I care about green issues, and working for these bodies to protect the environment by making people comply with their environmental responsibilities makes me feel that I might be doing some good”

Green at heart

Flying the flag for causes that he cares about is an understandable source of job satisfaction. “I like the feeling of being on the right side, to be honest,” says Ben. “I care about green issues and working for these bodies to protect the environment by making people comply with their environmental responsibilities makes me feel that I might be doing some good.” Nowhere was this more evident than in Browne Jacobson’s role in the formation of NRW: “The firm’s property team handled the property aspect of the deal, while our job was to transfer responsibilities from the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commissioners to the new body, which involved amending the relevant legislation by drafting an order which transferred those powers. I had only just qualified, so the experience stands out as a highlight – it was really rewarding to see what we had written become law.”

However, this area is not without its pressures: “Environmental law is constantly evolving and can involve almost any area, so it’s hard work. A lot of what you do also happens in a contentious environment, which means that you have to meet court deadlines, for example.”

Looking ahead, Ben is concerned at the amount of holes that remain to be filled in the environmental regime, as well as the possibility of existing protections being eroded. “We’re primarily involved in making sure that people comply with the legislation that is there, but there should be more legislation being put in place to protect the environment,” he says. “Meanwhile, the decision to leave the European Union is hugely significant, because most of our environmental law – on water, waste, birds and habitats, to name a few – stems from EU directives. I am concerned that some people are looking to unpick the legislative framework concerning the environment and this could have significant negative impacts, especially in relation to biodiversity.”

Ben goes on to advise that succeeding in this area of law requires serious dedication. “There aren’t many of us environmental lawyers out there, are there?” he muses. “You need to be passionate about what you’re doing because, whether you’re acting for public bodies or claimants, you won’t want to be in this for the money – neither of these types of client have much to spend on legal fees. The claimants and their solicitors whom I speak to all have a keen interest in environmental issues; and if you really care about these concerns, then this is a rewarding, varied area to work in, which also makes the headlines. That said, it’s a hard area to get into – there aren’t that many firms practising environmental law and I was fortunate enough to join one of them, complete a seat with the team during my training and fill a vacancy when the opportunity arose. When choosing your firm, it would be wise to apply to those which practise a broad range of environmental law, not just the property side, which a lot of firms do. This area of law would be quite difficult to cross into at a later date, I think – you need to get some experience early on.”   

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