Justine Emerson is the coordinator of EDO’s National Intake program. Justine and her team provide people at the frontline of environmental harms a place to seek access to the legal system, through legal information, free short legal advice and referrals. Our National Intake program is the only service of its kind in Australia where community members can seek free legal advice on environmental laws. Last year, the Intake team provided over 1,000 legal services.

What’s your legal background and how did you come to work at EDO?   

I spent the first part of my legal career in public liability and professional indemnity claims, working primarily with local councils and State government agencies. Whilst this work was very interesting, I have always been passionate about social justice and environmental sustainability and wanted to work in an area that closely aligned with these values. I was very fortunate to secure a position with the Environmental Defenders Office and am currently the Co-Ordinator of the National Intake program. 

Most people aren’t aware of EDO’s National Intake program. Can you explain what it is, and how this service helps to provide people with access to justice?  

The National Intake Program provides free legal assistance to individuals and community groups who want to protect the environment.  In the past this service operated as an advice line, however in early 2021 we introduced the ‘Legal Gateway’ which allows people to lodge their application via our website. This enables us to obtain relevant information quickly and easily, ensuring we are efficiently managing our limited resources and are able to help more people! 

In 2023 we received a grant from the Commonwealth Government which has enabled us to review the Legal Gateway and we are currently implementing changes that will make the Gateway easier for people to use. Of course, anybody who does not have access to the internet or is otherwise unable to use this system can still reach out to us by telephone.   

Whilst anybody can make an application for free legal assistance on a public interest environmental matter, we do prioritise people who face barriers that impact their ability to access justice. This includes people who are financially disadvantaged, those that live in remote areas or where English is not their first language.  We also recognise that environmental harms have a disproportionate impact on certain communities, this is particularly true for First Nations peoples. We aim to support these communities to ensure they have access to a clean, healthy environment where Country and culture are protected. 

In addition to this service, we also work with other teams in the organisation to produce legal resources for each jurisdiction that can be accessed for free via our website. These resources extend our reach and enable people to obtain legal information on a wide range of topics whenever they need it. 

What’s the impact for people, communities and nature? 

I believe, and this is supported by the feedback we get from our clients, that the National Intake Program provides a very valuable and unique service to the community.   We help people navigate complex local, State and Commonwealth planning and environmental laws over an extraordinarily broad range of issues.  

One of the most common requests we receive is for advice on major developments, which can include mines, large infrastructure projects or industrial facilities. We can provide information on the assessment and approval process for these sorts of developments and outline opportunities for people to participate in the decision-making process and achieve better outcomes for the environment and communities.  

Another common area for people to seek help is in relation to concerns about unlawful land clearing which threaten endangered species and ecological communities. We can assist by identifying the relevant regulatory framework and guiding people to the Government agency responsible for regulating clearing of native vegetation in that area. We are also able to advise what information should be provided when reporting the clearing and what to do if they are not happy with the response that has been provided by the investigating Agency. This will often result in stopping the unlawful clearing and where appropriate, further action being taken against the landholder by the regulator. 

Our National Intake Program is the only service of its kind in Australia where community members can seek free legal advice on environmental laws. The service we provide facilitates an understanding of the law and enables people to achieve better outcomes for the environment.  

Can you talk about EDO’s focus on providing legal services for overburdened communities?  

Achieving environmental justice is fundamental to the National Intake Program. Environmental harm, which includes air and water pollution as well as the impacts of climate change, can have a disproportionate impact on certain communities. As many of these communities are also contending with other issues such as financial disadvantage and housing or employment stress, they are often unable to obtain private legal advice on avenues available to participate in decision-making or address ongoing breaches of the law.  National Intake can meet this critical community need and ensure that everyone has equal access to legal services and are able to understand and exercise their legal rights. 

What are some of the positive outcomes you’ve seen from National Intake?  

There are many examples of clients who have taken our advice and achieved much improved environmental outcomes in their communities. These include situations where the regulator has issued fines for ongoing breaches of an environment pollution licence which was causing significant air and water pollution, a moratorium on logging in a native forest with a significant koala population and improved safeguards for the breeding habitat of migratory shorebirds.   

What motivates you to do this work at EDO?   

The challenges posed by the dual climate and biodiversity crises can sometimes feel overwhelming, however it gives me enormous satisfaction to be able to support people who share a passion for protecting the natural environment. The National Intake Program is able to ensure that these people understand any legal avenues available to them, are able to participate in decision-making processes to the fullest extent possible and take action to stop breaches of environmental laws.  It is such a privilege to be able to work with these incredible individuals and community organisations who are committed to safeguarding nature and making sure that future generations have a safe and healthy planet, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else! 

Access EDO’s online Legal Gateway here.