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. In its May 27, 2021 judgment, the Court delayed issuing a declaration about the duty of care owed by the minister, and raised a number of questions to the parties about the scope of the duty.
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.
The plaintiffs announced that they would not appeal the decision.
The plaintiffs asked the court to make orders that the proceeding not continue as a representative proceeding.
The Full Court was of the view that before orders were made setting aside the orders of the Court
made by the primary judge and dismissing the amended originating application dated 14
December 2020, the parties should be afforded an opportunity to consider whether any further
orders were appropriate or necessary to address the representative nature of the proceeding. This is because the proceedings in their current form would bind the represented children (all Australians under the age of 18 at the time the case was filed), and give rise to an issue estoppel in relation to all questions of fact and law necessary to the Full Court’s conclusion that the Minister did not owe the posited duty of care. This would prevent the represented children from bringing proceedings of a similar nature in the future.
Accordingly, the parties asked the court to make orders that the proceeding not continue as a representative proceeding. The relevant orders were made by the court on 14 April 2022 and reasons published on 22 April 2022.
|09/08/2020||Complaint||Download||No summary available.|
|10/29/2020||Reply||Download||Minister for the Environment's Concise Statement in Response|
|12/09/2020||Not Available||Download||Independent Expert Report by Dr. Karl Mallon.|
|05/27/2021||Judgment||Download||Judgment establishing duty of care but rejecting injunction|
|07/08/2021||Judgment||Download||Judgment issuing declaration|
|09/13/2021||Appeal||Download||Appellant's outline of the submissions|
|09/13/2021||Appeal||Download||Notice of appeal|
|09/24/2021||Appeal||Download||Respondent’s Outline of Submissions|
|09/15/2021||Not Available||Download||EPBC Act approval of mine and conditions,|
|09/16/2021||Not Available||Download||Minister’s statement of reasons for approval|
|10/04/2021||Appeal||Appellant’s Submissions in Reply|
|03/15/2022||Decision||Download||Decision from the Federal Court of Australia (on the appeal)|
|04/22/2022||Judgment||Download||No summary available.|