The Queensland Government is toying with proposal that could tip the scales away from communities looking to protect their local environment and towards large developers.
EDO Qld Senior Solicitor Sean Ryan says: “The government is proposing to make a radical change to the costs rules in the Planning and Environment Court, which will make average Queenslanders risk crippling costs if they exercise their right to appeal development decisions.”
“For more than twenty years the Planning and Environment Court has applied the “own costs” rule, where each party to a dispute bears his or her own legal costs,” he said.
“Judges have consistently recognised that this rule serves an important public interest as well as advancing purposes of the State’s planning law by providing community involvement in decision making.
“However, it has recently been reported that the Government is planning to change the rules so that the party who loses a challenge in the Planning and Environment Court has to pay the winners court costs, not simply their own.”
Mr Ryan said the change appears contrary to comments made by the Premier in the lead up to the last election.
“Before the election Premier Newman said on ABC radio that ‘there will be no change to people’s ability to appeal development that is outside the normal town plan,” he said.
“The proposed changes will severely prejudice the ability of community members and groups to appeal major developments and decisions of local councils outside the normal town plan.
“Ordinary people, with a legitimate case to take to the Court, simply cannot afford to risk even a small chance of a costs order if they lose, as this means being forced to sell their homes or end their volunteer group.
“Large developers and Councils with deep pockets can wear the risk so the change will disproportionately affect the little guys.
“This proposal would effectively shut the court door in the face of people such as mums and dads who want to defend their homes against nearby development in excess of the town plan, community groups defending local bush or parkland, and respected environmentalists seeking to protect waterways and endangered species.”
Mr Ryan added that there is no evidence that this rule is being abused or that it needs to be changed, with the Court already able to award costs against those who are ‘frivolous and vexatious’ or seeking to delay or obstruct their opponents.
“Our office has provided advice to thousands of community members and groups on Queensland planning law over 20 years,” he said.
“We have been publishing the Community Litigants Handbook since 2006 to help people access the Court. So we know the devastating effect this proposal would have to the community.”