Planning law: area of practice (barristers)
This area of practice involves appearing as an advocate and advising on all aspects of the built and natural environment. Cases range from major urban expansion of towns in the UK to prosecution of major pollution incidents to development proposals affecting sensitive sites such as conservation areas, listed buildings and national parks.
A planning law barrister's work
A case itself (the appearance before the court or tribunal) may extend from a few days to several weeks or months. Barristers spend a significant amount of time, in the build up to a court or tribunal appearance, giving pre-trial advice and preparing evidence for court for that case.
Clients can be any individual or organisation that has an interest or concern in the built or natural environment. They range from central and local government – or their agencies, including the Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage – through to private developers or land owners, pressure groups and amenity groups.
This is a heavily advocacy-based area of practice. Barristers can expect to be in court two or three times a week. Most cases are tried in the High Court or above. Environmental cases can involve the criminal courts, either at a magistrates’ court or crown court. The remainder of cases are public inquiries.
The rest of the week is spent advising or in consultation with clients in chambers or on site visits. Visiting the location of a site in question is fundamentally important for a barrister, particularly in planning cases concerning, say, the change of use of a listed building. If a planning case hinges on the visual impact of 50 houses on a town, it’s vital to take a look at it.
Working with expert witnesses
The enormous variety of cases makes this a very enjoyable area of practice. You become heavily involved in working with expert witnesses and learning about their specialisms. The range of experts is considerable – from ecologist and archaeologists to landscape architects. Good teamwork is at the essence of this specialism: barristers head up large multidisciplinary teams with multiple areas of expertise. It is the barrister’s responsibility to ensure that the team work together as one.
The downside to this area of practice is the pressure on your time. Planning and environmental barristers work long hours: late nights and early mornings, rather than all night stints. You will be required to travel to different courts around the country and spend a fair amount of time away from home. While you’re representing one client in court, there is pressure on you to stay involved in the preparation and progress of your other active cases (typically 20 or 30 cases) at either end of the day.
Aspiring planning and environmental barristers should be aware of the high-profile eviction of 400 people at the gypsy encampment at Dale Farm in Essex; this is the sort of work junior barristers may get involved in. Another recent, controversial issue is the government’s planned introduction of a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which has raised concerns among charities such as the National Trust. The government’s policy to put more power over planning decisions into the hands of the local community is likely to affect barristers’ work. It’s still to be seen whether this initiative will give rise to more litigation, as predicted by some practitioners.
The environmental aspect of this practice area is entirely recession-proof. The planning work, however, is affected by economic climate and government policy. Some types of work decrease (eg, there are fewer cases related to house-building than four or five years ago) whereas other areas increase (such as energy-related development in response to the government’s push for renewable energy).
As a pupil...
Pupils accompany barristers to witness what the job involves and the skills required in this area of practice. Pupils are required to carry out legal research in and, during their second six, will have responsibility for their own cases, typically acting for residents’ groups or community groups that are opposing planning proposals. Pupils will work similar hours to members of chambers.
Types of law practised
- Administrative and public.
- Human rights.
Good planning and environmental barristers…
- Have clear analytical skills.
- Manage their time well.
- Can assimilate technical expert evidence quickly.
- Understand complex matters and can explain them clearly.
- Have good teamworking skills.
DOUGLAS EDWARDS QC is a barrister at FRANCIS TAYLOR BUILDING. He graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in law in 1992 and was appointed a QC in 2010.