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Australia

Sharma and others v Minister for the Environment

Jurisdiction: Federal Court of Australia


Side A: Sharma and others (Individual)


Side B: Australia (Government)


Core objectives: Youth sought injunction to block coal project.


Summary
On September 8, 2020, eight young people filed a putative class action in Australia's Federal Court to block a coal project. The lawsuit sought an injunction to stop the Australian Government from approving an extension of the Whitehaven Vickery coal mine. The plaintiffs claimed to represent all people under 18, and argued that Federal Minister Sussan Ley has a common law duty of care for young people. They further asserted that digging up and burning coal will exacerbate climate change and harm young people in the future. Plaintiffs sought an injunction to prevent the Minister from approving the project under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC). 

On May 27, 2021, the Federal Court of Australia established a new duty of care to avoid causing personal harm to children but declined to issue an injunction to force the Minister to block the coal mine extension. The Court concluded that "the applicants have established that the Minister has a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury to the Children when deciding, under s 130 and s 133 of the EPBC Act, to approve or not approve the Extension Project." In establishing the duty of care, the Court found that the foreseeable harm from the project, if the risks were to come true, would be "catastrophic", and therefore children should be considered persons who would be so directly affected that the Minister ought to consider their interests when making the approval decision. In declining to issue an injunction, the Court found that the plaintiffs had not established that it is probable that the Minister would breach the duty of care in making the approval decision, and had not established that they will have no further opportunity to apply for an injunction.

On July 8, 2021, the Court issued a declaration that "The [Minister] has a duty to take reasonable care . . . to avoid causing personal injury or death to persons who were under 18 years of age and ordinarily resident in Australia at the time of the commencement of this proceeding arising from emissions of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere." In issuing the declaration, the Court rejected arguments by the Minister to limit the declaration to only the applicants. Instead, the Court declared the duty applied to all Australian young people because both the applicants and Australian young people had the "same interest." The Court ordered the Minister to pay costs.

On September 13, 2021, the Ministry of Environment filled an appeal questioning the judge’s finding that the Minister owes a duty of care to avoid causing personal injury to children related to anthropogenic climate change. The appeal is based on the separation of powers and the argument that the Minister’s decision is a matter of policy and subject to discretion. The regulation of GHG emissions is better suited for the Executive, and no novel duty of care should be recognized. The appeal also questioned whether the approved project would cause a net increase in global GHG emissions and the reversed onus of proof in approaching this issue.

Despite the Federal Court’s decision, on September 15, 2021, the Minister granted approval for the proposed mine expansion. A hearing was held on October 18-20, 2021. On March 15, 2022, the Full Federal Court of Australia unanimously overturned the primary judge’s decision to impose a duty of care on the Minister. The three judges had separate reasonings. Chief Justice Allsop found that the duty would require consideration of questions of policy “unsuitable for the judicial branch to resolve.” Justice Beach found insufficient “closeness” between the Minister and the children but left open the possibility of a future claim if any of the children suffered damage. Justice Wheelahan found that (i) the EPBC Act cannot establish a duty of care relationship between the Minister and children, (ii) establishing a duty would be incoherent with the Minister’s functions under the EPBC Act and (iii) it was not foreseeable that approval of the coal mine extension would cause personal injury to the children. Despite allowing the Minister’s appeal, the Court rejected the Minister’s argument that the primary judge made findings based on evidence of climate change that were unfounded. This means that the primary judge's findings of fact about the risk of harm of climate change to children remain. The Full Federal Court noted that “the nature of the risks and the dangers from global warming, including the possible catastrophe that may engulf the world and humanity” were never in dispute.
Case documents

from the Grantham Research Institute
from the Grantham Research Institute
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