With offices in Dublin and Limerick, CLM is an independent source of free legal advice, advocacy, mediation, and education services. In 2021, it launched the Centre for Environmental Justice, which aims to give a voice to the most vulnerable as society grapples with the climate crisis.
For Rose Wall, this is not some mid-career turn in the road: she sees a clear path that connects to her work until this point.
From the very start of her career, she has focused strongly on human rights and social justice, representing vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. She has advocated for victims of injustice, so it’s natural that she sees the climate crisis in similar terms.
She argues that those who contributed least to the growing environmental issues, like flooding and pollution, will unfairly shoulder most of the burden.
“I’ve always been aware of environmental issues, but I only started to make and understand the connections between the climate crisis and the work I’ve been involved in more recently, such as how the risks won’t be borne equally, and how they’ll affect women, those with disabilities, Travellers and others,” she says.
“When we set up the centre, we were coming at it from a social-justice and human-rights background. We were seeing how climate change was having an impact on people’s housing – such as if there’s flooding – or their health, if they’re breathing polluted air,” she says.
Rose believes it’s critical that disadvantaged communities are represented in any discussion about the climate crisis. “There’s a real risk that climate-action measures will make their situations worse. We need to make sure the climate agenda protects the rights of those most at risk,” she says.
The law can help to ensure this happens, by having a ‘multiplier effect’. Legislation requiring public access to energy-efficient homes with improved security of tenure, free public transport, or ‘green’ space would help to tackle wider issues of inequality, she says.
The centre also aims to focus on engaging the community through collaboration with the Irish Local Development Network, An Taisce, and other groups.
“We want to bring organisations like us and communities on the journey that we’ve been on,” adds Rose. “One of the objectives of the centre is to work with other organisations to bring that ‘climate lens’ to the work they’re already doing, for example, in housing, working with people on low incomes, with people with disabilities or with the Traveller community, who wouldn’t traditionally work in the climate space.”
Rose believes that the crisis is now so pressing that only a collective effort across society can hope to make a difference – and she says that the legal profession has a vital role to play. By way of a rallying cry, she quotes the writer and activist Naomi Klein: “To change everything, you need everyone.”
Change and law
Change, and the law’s power to affect it, has been a constant theme of Rose Wall’s working life. Over the past ten years, CLM has expanded to help more than 4,000 people every year with free legal services, specifically groups that are marginalised or under-represented in the legal system.
“That’s 4,000 individual stories, and that’s really important. We have also identified specific areas of law that need looking at, so we’ve expanded our work in areas of children’s rights, for example,” says Rose.
One memorable case she recalls was a recent action by her CLM colleague, Ruth Barry, who won an important legal challenge on behalf of a visually impaired student. The student, Cormac Flynn, had only 10% sight and was facing the prospect of having to sit his Leaving Cert with physical exam papers after being refused access to the iPad he uses to help with his learning.
After a successful challenge, Ruth won the right for him to have digital Leaving Cert papers. Now Cormac, having experienced first-hand how powerful the law can be, has said he wants to become a lawyer.
The case also led to the State Examinations Commission changing its rules so that every Leaving Cert exam student with a visual impairment can have digital versions of their exam papers.
“That’s not me, it’s my team, but I’m proud of that case,” says Rose. “It shows how we can use the law as a tool in pushing forward one person’s case that can also result in meaningful changes for others.”
Another successful case that subsequently led to change in the law was McCann v Monaghan District Court & Ors. Caroline McCann was an unemployed mother of two and, in 2005, a District Court ordered her to be jailed for failing to repay an €18,000 judgment against her by Monaghan Credit Union.
In 2009, the High Court ruled that this was unconstitutional. Rose describes the legislation on which the original decision was based as “a real Dickensian piece of law, where someone could go to prison over their inability to pay a debt”.
Cases like this are the reason why another part of CLM’s work involves campaigning for law reform. “Under the law, we have certain rights and, if people don’t know about the law, or don’t know how to use it, or can’t access the services of a solicitor, then the laws are meaningless,” says Rose.
“What we sometimes see is that the law is there, and it might be good, but sometimes, there are gaps in the law, or decision-makers don’t know what their obligations are. Most people don’t know how to use the law or don’t have access to a solicitor to help them do that.”
Filling a gap
As one of eight centres in the country that fill a gap in providing civil legal aid, CLM also welcomes the anticipated review of the free legal-aid system. It’s the first such review in 40 years. Rose contends that the current system is poorly resourced and many people who need to access it often can’t do so.
It’s important there is a follow-through in terms of a comprehensive free legal-aid system. We’d really hope that whatever form is brought in is ambitious, comprehensive and adequate,” she says.
For example, CLM’s Limerick office is the only such community law centre outside of Dublin. Rose points out that it started shortly before she became CEO, driven by residents in the local communities, and has grown by 300% in the last ten years: “We help about 1,000 people every year with a tiny team,” she says.
What’s more, she points out that the current legal-aid system only provides assistance in limited areas, such as family law. “A whole swathe of law is not covered,” she says, such as social-welfare matters, assistance before tribunals, and housing.
For the Dublin-based lawyer, there’s a clear connecting line between her current role tackling environmental justice and her formative years with the law: “It goes back, in a way, to my student days. I was drawn to public-interest and human-rights law,” she recalls.
This explains why, after a traineeship in private practice, she worked as a plaintiff litigation solicitor representing people before a variety of forums, including the Hepatitis C and HIV Compensation Tribunal (for victims who had received contaminated blood products) and the Residential Institutions Redress Board. At the same time, she also volunteered with FLAC and the Ballymun Community Law Centre.
In 2010, she joined the Mercy Law Resource Centre as managing solicitor, where she advised and represented clients who were homeless or at risk of homelessness in the areas of housing and social-welfare law.
Her passion and enthusiasm for her work comes across in her rapid-fire speaking style. Not for one second does she see her work as sacrificing a lucrative career in private practice: “I feel incredibly privileged to be paid to do the job I do,” she says.
“The law affects us all in everything we do and, despite that, it’s not accessible to many. And the power of the law to protect people’s rights and hold power to account – I always wanted to work in a way that draws those two together. When an opportunity came up for a job where I could do this work for a living, I jumped at it.”
Forcing positive change
Rose Wall makes a compelling argument that the legal profession can play a critical role in addressing the climate crisis. She points to how Climate Case Ireland took the Irish Government to court in 2020 for failing to take sufficient action as part of its national climate policy.
The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court required the Government to revise its plan in line with its legal obligations. She says that similar cases through international complaints mechanisms are holding governments in other countries to account.
“The climate crisis requires us to change how we live, how we eat, how we heat our homes, and the legal community has a role to play in that. Failure to meet the target of keeping the increasing global temperature under the 1.5-degree Celsius limit will have a catastrophic impact, disproportionately impacting women, disabled groups, and poorer communities,” she says.
Rose believes that failing to meet the environmental goals, or pursuing actions that will worsen the problem, are inherently against people’s human rights. “Governments and businesses continue to pursue actions they know to be against the targets … The legal sector holds a unique position to force a positive change,” she says.
So what can legal professionals do? She calls for an approach like the Law Society of England and Wales’ climate-conscious approach to legal practice, including:
- The entire legal community must educate itself on the extreme environmental risks of breaching the 1.5-degree limit,
- In-house lawyers should advise clients where they are pursuing goals that are contrary to the aims of climate-action plans,
- For those who feel, ‘I’m just a solicitor, what can I do?’, ask your company: what is it doing around climate? Think of the wider impact of operations – including what businesses they work with – and advise appropriately,
- Join or volunteer with environmental organisations or take on pro bono work in this area.
Working for climate change can feel bleak, because the problem is all around us, and getting worse. Once more, Rose reaches for a line to inspire hope: “There’s a great quote: ‘action is the great antidote to despair’. As lawyers, we have privileges with our skills that we can use for climate action. From the questions we ask our employers and the work we do, all of that can drive action.”
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Gordon Smith is a freelance journalist.