Students launch climate crisis class action against Minister for Environment Sussan Ley

Legislative guardian Sister Brigid Arthur and litigant Anjali Sharma outside the courthouse. Photo: supplied
Legislative guardian Sister Brigid Arthur and litigant Anjali Sharma outside the courthouse. Photo: supplied

Eight teenagers from four Australian states have launched a landmark class action against Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley saying she has a "duty of care" to protect future generations from climate harm.

The class action has been heard in the Melbourne Federal Court with 86-year-old Brigidine nun Sister Brigid Arthur supporting the students as their "litigation guardian".

The case is being managed by Equity Generation Lawyers (EGL) under the framework of public interest litigation. The firm specialises in climate change law.

The class action, Anjali Sharma & others v Minister for Environment, was filed on September 8, 2020. It claims the government would be in breach of its duty of care to protect young people from future climate impacts if it used its environment laws to approve more coal mining.

The action is in response to a proposal to expand the Vickery open-cut coal mine, owned by Whitehaven Coal Limited, increasing its annual production by 25 per cent.

At a hearing in November 2019, Minister Ley agreed not to make a decision on the Vickery project until after the case was heard.

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The trial started on March 2 in Melbourne's Federal Court of Australia and ran for five days. A judgement is expected to be handed down in coming weeks.

Led by renowned senior commercial barrister Noel Hutley SC, the class action is an Australian first. Since it was filed, over 1500 young people have asked to join the class action.

"A safe climate and an increase in fossil fuel production are incompatible. Given the impacts we've already experienced, and what the future holds if we don't act now, approving new coal mines will simply further harm young Australians," said 16-year-old Anj Sharma from Melbourne.

"We are arguing that the Minister of the Environment has a duty to protect us all. This case aims to make sure that duty is fulfilled."

Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Photo: Karleen Minney.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Photo: Karleen Minney.

The students are all active in the Schools Strike 4 Climate campaign.

EGL said if the court agrees the minister's duty of care to protect young people from the harms of burning coal prevents her from approving the Vickery extension project, it could set a legal precedent preventing the government from approving new fossil fuel projects.

Similar class actions have been tested internationally to hold governments to account on climate policy.

On February 4, the French state was convicted of failing to address the climate crisis and not keeping its promises to tackle greenhouse gas emissions - a historic ruling that held that compensation for "ecological damage" was admissible, and that declared the state "should be held liable for part of this damage if it had failed to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions".

The ruling will be used to push the French state to act against the climate crisis.

"Around the world, people are taking legal action to hold their governments to account for inaction in the face of climate change," EGL principal David Barnden said.

"With their future at stake, it stands to reason young people in Australia are taking the fight to those in power."

On March 9, during a visit to Port Macquarie, the minister refused to comment on the class action while the matter remained before the court.