Federal Court rules on teens’ climate change class action against Minister

Blake Antrobus and Evin PriestNCA NewsWire
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Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: News Corp Australia

Climate activist teens have claimed a legal victory after the Federal Court found the “risk of death” a coal mine posed meant the Environment Minister owed them a duty of care when approving the project.

However the group of eight Australian teenagers failed in a bid to have an injunction slapped on the expansion of a massive coal mine in northern NSW as part of a landmark legal challenge against the minister responsible, Sussan Ley.

The students claimed Ms Ley was violating her duty of care to future generations when she approved the extension to the Vickery coal mine last year due to its expected contribution to global CO2 emissions.

QUESTION TIME
Camera IconThe students took Environment Minister Sussan Ley to court. NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

The students wanted the court to recognise Ms Ley’s duty to protect young people from foreseeable future climate change harms.

In his judgment, Justice Mordy Bromberg said the minister’s duty of care should be recognised when deciding on projects under national environmental law.

“Accordingly, the court has determined the minister has a duty to take reasonable care not to cause the children personal injury when exercising her power … to approve or not approve the extension project,” Justice Bromberg said.

“The evidence demonstrates that a reasonable person in the position of the minister would foresee that, by reason of the extension project’s effect on increased CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and the consequential increase in global surface temperatures, each of the children is exposed to a risk of death or other personal injury.

“The evidence therefore establishes an essential precondition for the law of negligence to recognise a duty of care owed by the minister to each of the children.

Anjali "Anj" Sharma
Camera IconMelbourne teen Anjali ‘Anj’ Sharma, 16, is leading a class-action lawsuit by eight Australian teens challenging Environment Minister Susan Ley to protect young people from climate change. Credit: News Corp Australia

However, he said the application for an injunction was not warranted.

“I have not been satisfied that a reasonable apprehension of breach of the duty of care by the minister has been established, nor have the applicants satisfied the court that the extent of the restraint they seek is justified,” he said.

Justice Bromberg said the court would give the parties another opportunity for submissions about the terms of the “orders and declarations” reflecting the court’s judgment.

Ava Princi, one of the teenagers involved in the class action, said she was thrilled with the decision.

“This is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world has recognised that a government minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change,” Ava, 17, said outside court.

“My future and the future of all young people depends on Australia stepping away from fossil fuel projects and joining the world in taking decisive climate action.

“The court accepted our evidence that the emissions released from the mining will contribute to serious and wide ranging physical, mental and financial losses, but will now recognise that environment ministers (are) in a position of power to prevent harms.”

The students, represented by Equity Generation Lawyers with the assistance of their litigation guardian Sister Brigid Arthur, argued Ms Ley had a duty to “protect young people from the devastating impacts of climate change” as environment minister.

In court documents, they claimed the mine extension would result in greater harm for future generations due to the mine’s contribution to rising carbon dioxide emissions.

“The applicants are vulnerable to a known, foreseeable risk of serious harm, which the minister can control but they cannot,” their originating statement reads.

Lawyers for Ms Ley filed a response arguing the minister did not owe a duty of care because the claim was “incoherent”.

A spokesman for Ms Ley said her office was looking at the judgment, but did not comment further.

A spokeswoman for Whitehaven Coal - the company behind the Vickery coal mine expansion - said they welcomed the Federal Court judgment.

“Our consistent position has been that this legal claim was without merit,” the spokeswoman said.

“The company sees a continuing role for high quality coal in contributing to global CO2 emissions reduction efforts while simultaneously supporting economic development in our near region. “

Originally published as Federal Court rules on teens’ climate change class action against Minister

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