what: the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) is a registered charity set up to assist people with legal and scientific advice, in order to help them protect their human rights in environmental and health issues. It operates a helpline and provides advice to individuals and communities throughout the world.
ELC came into existence following the personal experiences of its founders either as victims or living with people who have suffered or suffer from environmental illnesses as a result of chemical exposures. ELC is built on a belief that no one should be denied access to justice for lack of means. If you have been unfortunate to have been exposed to chemicals, other environmental pollutants and consumer products you will need immediate assistance in knowing how to respond to the exposure…
how it works: ELC is not funded by any organisation and relies entirely on donations. The advice comes from a pool of lawyers, engineers, scientists and others, who give their time on a voluntary basis. One of the aims of the ELC is to empower the people who need help the most. Their helpline runs from 9am to 4pm.
Since its inception in 1998, the ELC has proven a thorn in the side of governmental, legal and commercial interests who routinely ignore or abuse their powers and position with respect to the victims of pollution and other ecological abuse. It has exposed corruption in all of these areas and helped thousands of individuals and communities seek redress for the damage done to them. The ELC answers over 12,000 inquiries each year.
troubles: the gatekeepers of the legal profession have never looked favourably on challenges to the hegemony of their guild. Recently, top lawyers have been giving a hard time to the ELC. The ELC's work is being threatened by ongoing harassment from the Law Centres Federation (LCF), a private company, which represents law centres across the UK.
LCF has attempted to close down the ELC in the past but was unsuccessful in its attempts. But this year, the ELC received a further representation from the Federation through their solicitors, Pinsents. This time they were told that the term ‘Law Centre’ was now a registered trademark owned by the Federation, and that the ELC's name amounted to an infringement of that trademark. Not only this - the ELC was accused of a “blatant passing off of their services as being those of the Federation or being entitled to the benefits of the Federation's reputation and goodwill”
Steve Hynes, the current chair of the Federation, told Corporate Watch: “all we ask is that the ELC cease to use our trademark”. Asked why the Federation would not accept the ELC as an associate member he said it was because law centres have to have paid solicitors working for them. The ELC does have solicitors, but they work on a voluntary basis. Hynes was unable to explain why payment of lawyers was significant other than that the Federation rules require it.
effective monopoly: Law Centre status is very important to the ELC. The outcome of a recent court case, Paragon Finance v. R H Noueiri (EWCA Civ 1402, 19th September 2001), set a precedent that in future only members of the Law Society and the Law Centres Federation will be allowed to give legal advice to litigants. This creates an effective monopoly on legal advice for the Federation. It is not hard to see that this is in violation of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, where the right to a fair trial entitles every individual to "legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require”. Without Law Centre status the ELC might be forced to cease operating.
take action: the ELC is asking people to lend “moral, financial and practical support to assist in our fight by sending us your letters of support of the importance of the ELC”. They are also asking people to “write to the UK Patent Office informing them that the words 'Law Centre' are generic and descriptive and cannot be allowed to be registered as a trade mark”. For more information, please refer to ELC website.