I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the 28th Sultan Azlan Shah Law Lecture earlier this evening. The presenter this year is the Rt Honorable Lord Carnwath of Notting hill, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, on the topic of ‘Environmental Law in a Global Society”.
Focusing on the history and rise of the environmental law, the lecture explored the reaction of the global community towards various environmental threats, including the thinning of the ozone layer and the build-up of greenhouse gases. It touches on the role of the courts and tribunals, national and international, in interpreting older laws in accordance to globally accepted environmental law principles, for example, in the India, the constitutional right to life has been interpreted to include the right of life in a clean and safe environment.
While such interpretations may be denounced by passive judges as ‘usurping the power of the lawmakers’, in my humble opinion, it is the only reasonable and sensible way forward. Yes, such matters of great policy reasons should be debated and decided by the lawmakers in respective countries (assuming the countries themselves are capable to debate such issues). However, in light of the recent failure of countries in the New York Summit to come to an agreement over environmental issues such as carbon dioxide emissions and rapidly declining supply of clean water, it is the courts and tribunals left who have the power to alter the pathways of humankind, however minute.
Sultan Azlan Shah said that ‘law is the bridge between scientific knowledge and political action’. As all law students in the Commonwealth will know, in the common law system, the judges are in general making law by filling in the gaps or lacuna in the law. Why then should this not be considered a lacuna, thereby allowing judges to prevent people from exploiting the environment and natural resources while waiting on the heads of countries to make up their minds.
The Rt Hon Lord Carnwath is undoubtedly the best person qualified to speak on this topic, being the leading judge in several key cases on environmental law lately such as Barr v Biffa Waste Services Ltd (2012) and Coventry v Lawrence (2014). His lecture is full of legal notations and is in short, Environmental Law At A Glance. It is very educational and is easy to understand, even for someone who has no knowledge at all of environmental law.
Tonight, I was in distinguished company during the lecture. The Sultan of Perak and his Queen came as well as the Justices of the Federal Court as well as other judges from the lower courts. In particular, I recognize one of the judges who was a judge in my mooting competition. Hopefully I will be able to go again next year.