Quality and consistency through collaboration

All.Corporate & Commercial.Planning Environment & Local Government

Local Government work grabbed Chris Drury’s attention from when he first started as an articled clerk, and he’s still just as enthusiastic about it now. His passion was recognised when he was awarded Best Lawyer’s 2021 “Lawyer Of The Year Award - Land Use and Zoning Law, Sydney” this month and was also recently listed as ‘Preeminent’ in Doyles’ “Leading Planning & Development Lawyers – NSW” category and as ‘Recommended’ in Doyles’ Leading Environment & Climate Change Lawyers – “NSW” category.

We sat down (remotely) with Chris to find out how COVID-19 has affected Councils and the work he does with them, how sometimes his job is telling Councils that the correct interpretation of a law is the opposite of what they want to hear and how he’s been working with Councils to help rate payers during this difficult time.  

What drew you to practise local government, town planning and environmental law?

I started work as an articled clerk (pre College of Law) when, in my case, I attended university full-time and in the last two years, also worked (almost) full-time. Sydney University did not offer any courses in Local Government but my firm (Smithers Warren & Tobias) acted for Penrith City Council and I was aware of the nature of the work involved. It seemed interesting and I asked to be allowed to do some. Initially there was some push back (since I was doing property and divorce law) but through persistence I started doing a couple of jobs and eventually took over the practice. Once immersed in the area I found that I was working with very capable people who were interested in the public good rather than personal gain. Because I have always believed that law is a vocation of service to the community, that was appealing to me.

How has the current issue with COVID-19 affected your area of law and the clients you work with?

Most clients are working from home and the volume of new instructions has dropped. Our practice has a significant litigation element. In most cases (for planning appeals at least) it is necessary to view the site in question. However, the Land and Environment Court will not allow their personnel, at present, to attend any site. The hearings are either conducted through a video link or by telephone. But there is only one video link available at the Land and Environment Court. “Site inspections” are conducted by use of photographs, video evidence and the like. A number of cases in the Land and Environment Court where an actual site inspection is critical have been adjourned or postponed until later in the year. Likewise, our work in NCAT (particularly GIPA Act work – which is common in local government) is often conducted on the papers. So our work has been badly affected.

One interesting aspect of COVID-19 is that we have been asked to advise about actions that some Councils intend to take, to assist rate payers, for which there is no provision in the legislation. That is fascinating work.

What do you see are the major issues or trends in local government, town planning and environmental law for the coming year?

For years Councils have been obliged to carry out additional functions that were formerly the province of the State Government, but without being adequately funded to do so. Most Council budgets are under serious pressure.

There has been a massive increase in clearing of native vegetation throughout the State in the last several years. There is a real risk that the koala will soon be extinct.

We all know about the huge problem of poorly constructed (and designed) apartment buildings and at some stage, the Government needs to come to grips with the large number of buildings with combustible cladding. We need stronger planning controls.

What are the toughest problems and decisions you handle?

I cannot count the number of times I have stood before the elected body of a Council and told them that the correct interpretation of the law is the very opposite of what they wanted to hear. I think to myself: “Is this the last job I will ever do for this client?” But I always say that my opinion is just that, binding on nobody.

As an advocate, it can be hard to turn around a decisionmaker who has clearly formed an early opinion adverse to your case. But one must battle on.

What are the types of professional and personal skills that you think people need to succeed at this type of work?

All lawyers need wisdom and intelligence and there is no substitute for hard work. But most importantly one needs to know as much as possible about your client’s business and show the strongest possible enthusiasm for helping to solve their problems. As I always say, clients are everything and we are there for them, not the other way around.

What have you read, watched or listened to lately that you really enjoyed or that made you stop and think?

Yes. Bruce Pascoe: “Dark Emu”, Henry Reynolds: “The Other Side of the Frontier” and Bryan Stephenson: “Just Mercy”. The appalling treatment through history of Aborigines and African Americans breaks my heart. Much needs to be done to remedy past injustices.

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