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New Zealand Supreme Court uses Cardiff law research in high-profile climate change case

28 February 2024

A power station in New Zealand

Research by a Cardiff law academic has been cited in New Zealand’s Supreme Court in a ruling which may affect the way that climate change and its affects are viewed in future.

Head of Law, Professor Ben Pontin’s research from 2012-2014, which explores polluting enterprises during the British Industrial Revolution, has been cited in the high-profile case Smith v Fonterra which has been ongoing in Auckland, New Zealand since 2020.

Indigenous New Zealander Michael Smith attempted to sue a number of greenhouse gas emitting corporations in 2020 arguing that their contributions to climate change were harmful and interfered with his rights. This type of claim is commonly referred to as a tort, a scenario which unfairly results in loss or harm to another. Smith claimed that the corporations were responsible for 3 different torts: public nuisance, negligence, and breach of duty of care.

At the time the New Zealand courts were largely unsympathetic to Smith’s claims and dismissed 2 as untenable.

However, the New Zealand Supreme Court has now decided that a private claim for public nuisance in respect of greenhouse gases can proceed to a full hearing on the facts. Reaching its decision, the Court noted Professor Pontin’s research.

Pontin’s research showed that injunctions during the Industrial Revolution did not close down polluting enterprise, with loss of employment, but rather resulted in the invention of clean technologies, with economic and environmental benefits.

Counsel for the plaintiff, David Bullock, wrote to Professor Pontin saying “I have really enjoyed reading your work on the history and development of nuisance in Victorian England and I have found it tremendously useful in my own research over the last few years. We relied on your work in our arguments before the Supreme Court of New Zealand, and I thought I should let you know that the Court cited your work several times.”

Speaking of the case Professor Pontin said, “I was thrilled to hear that my research has been relied upon in such a high-profile climate case. This really cements the school’s international profile in the field of environmental law. I hope it encourages students who wish to study this field that they too can contribute to this fast-changing area of law and actually make a difference to people’s lives and litigations.”

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