Legal aid for the environment comes under fire in New Zealand

A fund set up to help cash-strapped groups fight legal battles in New Zealand's Environment Court has been accused of appearing to 'launder money'.

A report criticising the Environmental Legal Assistance fund has been released by the Centre for Resource Management Studies, a private body set up, according to its website, to challenge the bureaucracy of the planning system and 'long delays and high transaction costs associated with any attempt to establish a new business enterprise'.

The Government fund was established to help environmental and community groups play a more effective role in deciding the fate of New Zealand's resources.

But according to the study centre, while well intentioned, the fund has in practice been abused or seen by the public as being abused.

"Because the fund is administered by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), many perceive the grants to be used by the Ministry to promote its environmental agenda by "laundering" money through private lobby groups," said the centre in a statement on its report.

"While this is almost certainly not the case, the perception is damaging to trust in public administration."

In order to receive money from the fund groups must show:

  • the matter before the court is of environmental public interest
  • the focus of the case is the protection or enhancement of environmental qualities
  • the case affects the wider community or general public
  • there is likely to be an imbalance between the level or quality of evidence and case management due to a lack of financial resources.

    Despite this stipulation the centre claims the Environmental Legal Assistance fund is nevertheless increasing the "imbalance" between landowners and well-funded lobby groups and landowners feel bullied when their local council's planning decisions are appealed to the Environment Court by national lobby groups funded by MfE, even though these groups pay no rates and own no land in the district.

    Director of the trust, Owen McShane, is a successful venture capitalist with a background in city planning who has delivered seminars, written papers or acted as a consultant on diverse topics from biotechnology to casino development.

    He says he is committed to stimulating vigorous debate and promoting informed opinion.

    His centre would also like to see the current system scrapped in favour of a new Resource Management Legal Assistance Fund, administered by the Justice Department rather than MfE.

    The centre believes groups should have to demonstrate genuine need for sufficient funds to promote their case rather than a claim to an imbalance of resources.

    It also argues groups should have to match any support from the fund dollar for dollar, though critics of its plans might argue that this would leave those the system is designed to support - the genuinely penniless - without a legal voice.

    By Sam Bond

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