Wild law: an interview with Paul Powlesland

© Hana Wolf Photography
The unconventional civil barrister, environmental activist and storyteller is shaking up what it means to be a lawyer in a time of environmental crisis. Interview by Aqsa Hussain

Paul cycles to Chambers to meet me on a cold Sunday evening, wearing his bright pink overalls, to discuss his passion for reigniting storytelling and activism at the Bar. His big dream: for nature to have rights.

Founder of Lawyers for Nature, an organisation dedicated to directly representing nature as well as those protecting it through the courts system, Paul’s big dream is grounded in the hope that many more laywers will follow suit by giving their time and skills to furthering the cause. Paul stresses the power that lawyers have, particularly those practising at the Bar, and the urgent need to do more to prevent the ongoing destruction the Earth faces.

‘We stand at the most crucial juncture in the history of humanity,’ he says. ‘It’s a really weird time since we are at “make-or-break” of our civilisation and saving the lives of many people on our planet. No part of our civilisation will remain untouched if it collapses; not even our legal system and yet everyone is blithely carrying on as if this issue is not real.’

Paul adds: ‘We as English barristers have a lot of responsibility for the problem,’ pointing to the ‘property’ view of nature that originated on English soil and has subsequently been exported around the world. By this, he means that nature is seen as something over which we have complete control and ownership – the ability to maintain and destroy as we see fit. He quotes 18th century jurist and scholar William Blackstone, author of the Commentaries on the Law of England, whose view still acts as precedent for how we treat nature: ‘The Earth, and all things herein, are the general property of mankind, exclusive of other beings, from the immediate gift of the creator.’ Paul contrasts this with New Zealand, for example, where the concept of nature having rights, driven by indigenous people who have a fundamentally different relationship with the natural world, has led to nature, such as woodlands and rivers, being able to sue for its mistreatment.

From a failing comprehensive school (it closed the year after he left), Paul was the ‘smart and chatty kid’ bound for one of two professions, according to teachers and peers: Prime Minister or a barrister. He picked the latter path and was the first generation in his family to go to university, graduating with a first in law from Peterhouse, Cambridge.

In his younger years, a more conservative Paul sought a career at the Bar to accommodate his skillset and need for financial security. He obtained pupillage with a top civil set in London. ‘There was no road to Damascus type of experience,’ he says, but his conservative views were dampened as he got more involved with social and environmental activism. A ‘plethora of experiences’ allowed him to gain more empathy and a deeper connection with nature, and develop greater anxiety and grief for its destruction.

Still, Paul took his generous pupillage award and bought a boat which he has lived on ever since in an effort to live off-grid and to be closer to nature, despite being in London. Three years ago he moved to the River Roding in Barking to found a community of boaters who would begin to restore the river. He set up the River Roding Trust and through this, he, boaters and the local community have planted trees, removed rubbish, opened up paths and begun to restore navigation along the river. Having already begun to secure the rights of the river in a practical sense, he is keen to begin drafting legal rights for the river this year.

‘The lack of legal personhood for nature is one of the key drivers of the destruction of the earth,’ he tells me. ‘Trees have no lawyers and therefore their interests do not get properly represented in court.’

Despite claiming that there was no notable turning point in his career, a case in Sheffield seemed pivotal, in particular, to his fight to save trees. In 2012 Sheffield City Council entered into a £2.2 billion Private Finance Initiative contract with Amey plc. This effectively gave the company both rights and incentive to chop down thousands of street trees in the city to make it cheaper and easier to repair roads and pavements. Paul first learned about this through Facebook when he put out a message offering his legal expertise to help those fighting for nature.

The campaign in Sheffield to save 17,500 trees was about to collapse. Many of those standing under the trees to prevent their destruction were being arrested under law which was not applicable (a provision from 19th century trade union law stating that it is a criminal offence if you prevent someone from unlawfully using their tools); and primarily for ignoring injunctions taken out by the council. The campaigners needed a formal advice within two days. On holiday at the time, Paul managed to write the advice, emphasising that the police were relying on inappropriate provisions to make these arrests and that ‘you can’t put people in jail – politically speaking – for standing under trees’. After receiving the advice, the police never returned and all those arrested received compensation.

Paul’s disdain for the use of injunctions is apparent: ‘It is the remedy of choice for environmental destructors these days, for those who have money and want to destroy the earth.’ Much of his environmental work involves going to the High Court to fight these injunctions. ‘The judgment of history takes a long time to come through,’ he says, but in the case of Sheffield it took a year. In the midst of legal battles the council recognised that the trees should be saved. Non-invasive, smart engineering strategies which could protect nature and allow the developers to proceed with their plans to regenerate the city were found. Paul says: ‘This is the proudest thing I’ve done... And when you touch this beautiful tree and see that it’s there partly because of your efforts, it’s a magical thing,’ he adds.

Financial reward in these types of cases is not a motivation for Paul; he sees it as his duty. In one instance, he was paid in ‘trees’ by a protester he had defended. The protestor raised £600 on Twitter to buy seeds; half of which were planted in Sheffield, some by Paul’s riverbank and the rest Paul handed out to barristers outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

Today, Paul says that he has adopted a two-fold approach: ‘Realistically, just campaigning for Parliament to give rights for trees isn’t going to get anywhere fast. But, equally, just trying to defend nature under the current laws is always going to be a losing battle.’ Lawyers for Nature, launched after the Sheffield case, does whatever is possible within the legal framework. His work in this field includes attending injunction hearings and anti-HS2 railway protests, and offering advice to anti-fracking and, more recently, Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists.

Paul’s involvement with XR began from the group’s first Declaration of Rebellion event in October 2018. He puts the group’s existence down to the fact that for far too long apathy pervaded; the climate issue was either ignored or disregarded in the hope that someone else would sort it out. In April 2019, the professional rebellion started. Doctors, lawyers and accountants, amongst many other professional groups, brought XR’s values into their professions by writing in-depth manifestos. Paul helped to draft the Lawyers for XR ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ and deliberately used the Bar Council’s motto ‘Justice for all’ in calling for climate justice, intergenerational justice and justice for the natural world. Paul is adamant that the ongoing criminalisation of non-violent civil disobedience, particularly in protests organised by XR, sets a dangerous precedent.

He practises from Ely Place Chambers where, besides his usual civil practice, he continues to take on many cases on environmental issues, both pro bono and crowdfunded. ‘Doing advocacy for what I feel passionate about’ remains the reason he was attracted to the profession in the first place.

Paul reiterates the words he used in a talk about ‘wild law’ – the overarching label for the branch of law which is used to protect the natural world: ‘We need to keep fighting for nature in the courts, in the fields, and on the streets.’

He is adamant that junior barristers should maintain their principles and more senior barristers should reclaim theirs, which can often be lost in a myriad of lucrative cases and prestige. Everyone can do their part, he believes, and lawyers are capable of offering their services in a more transformative way than many other professionals.

On an individual level, he calls for people to campaign to save nature. On the systemic level, ‘if a company lawyer was to campaign or change some of the parts of the Company Act and bring them more in line with climate justice’ that would be ‘monumental’ in tackling the crisis we face today.

‘Lawyers are ultimately powerful storytellers,’ he says as we draw the interview to an end, and as a profession, they need to reclaim their role in society as such and do good for the world.

The Owl Tree was one of the famous trees in Sheffield which was due to be chopped down yet remains standing – a symbol for the citizens of Sheffield who fought tirelessly against the unnecessary destruction of nature for corporate gain. Lawyers for Nature was founded by Paul Powlesland to ‘represent the natural world and all who seek to defend it’. It seeks to address one of the ‘biggest issues in the law relating to nature protection and environmental activism, which is the prohibitive cost of legal advice and representation’: lawyersfornature.com

 

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Aqsa Hussain

Aqsa Hussain is a pupil at No5 Chambers, focusing on criminal and public law. She reports for The Justice Gap and is a co-founder of Human Rights Pulse – a website dedicated to international human rights law news and discussion.