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The barrister pushing lawyers to back the planet, not polluters

Paul Powlesland on how lawyers have become “complicit” in the climate crisis
March 1, 2023

In a wood-panelled banqueting hall just steps away from the Royal Courts of Justice, lawyers whisper beneath portraits of the Stuart kings. The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple is one of four ancient institutions with the right to call lawyers to the English bar. Across a white tablecloth, barrister Paul Powlesland, 36, explains to me the threat he thinks his profession poses to the planet.

“I’d say ‘London lawyer’ has got to be in the top 10 or 20 professionals facilitating the fossil fuel industry in the world,” he says. Why? Much of the bar in England and Wales is guided by the “cab rank” principle: the idea that lawyers cannot refuse to represent a potential client with whom they disagree, just as a taxi driver shouldn’t turn down an unappealing passenger. There are exceptions, of course, but according to Powlesland, the consequence of this thinking is that “the bar has entirely defined who it is going to act for as ‘who can pay me?’”. And this means barristers end up defending the fossil fuel industry far more often than they do the planet and the activists struggling to protect it.

The barrister, who lives on a houseboat, also campaigns to protect the River Roding in Essex, where his home is moored, and for public access to land, known as the “right to roam”. He sees himself as radical only in relation to his conservative profession (“If I were a doctor, I’d be middle of the road”). He has so far held a peaceful protest outside Middle Temple, holding a placard and hoping to engage his peers in a chat. Later this year, he plans to highlight the role specific legal chambers play in supporting the fossil fuel industry. But not everyone finds his approach moderate.

Former Conservative justice minister David Wolfson shot back on Twitter at Powlesland’s accusation that the bar and judiciary are “complicit” in the climate crisis. Powlesland was “ignoring fundamental #RuleofLaw principles on which a civilised society depends, ie that everyone—especially those you disagree with—is entitled to representation,” Wolfson wrote. Powlesland has invited any practising UK barrister to debate the issue with him—so long as the meeting is in person, public and will be broadcast. Nobody has yet taken up the offer.

Powlesland doesn’t think every barrister needs to agree with him. His goal is for lawyers to start turning the power of their brains more often to the issue of climate change. “In almost every sector of law there are things that clever lawyers could do,” he says. “If we had more shit-hot criminal lawyers acting for climate protesters, that frees the protesters up to do more. We need injunction lawyers to combat the fossil fuel companies getting injunctions against people. We need personal injury lawyers because the climate crisis is going to cause a huge amount of damage.”

He also hopes that his activism will persuade even lawyers who represent fossil fuel companies to do more pro bono work supporting the climate movement. “In the face of an existential threat, barristers should be putting our skills, imagination, courage and influence towards solving this crisis,” he says—even if only to ward off valid criticism from campaigners just like him.