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The Legal Elite: Environment law shake-up on track

IT was a post-study trip in the US that inspired Tony van Merwyk to pursue a career in environmental planning law.

Mr van Merwyk completed a masters in international environmental law at the University of San Diego in 1990 and was travelling throughout the US.

He said the

sight of polluted beaches, degraded coral reefs and public access to the stretches of coastline blocked by private development prompted him to want to do it better back home in Perth.

Voted the State’s top environment and planning lawyer in WA Business News’ Legal Elite, Mr van Merwyk said he was lucky that, upon his return to Australia, his firm Parker & Parker, which he joined in 1987, gave him free rein to pursue an environmental planning practice. At the time environmental planning law was not viewed as a significant business area.

Working with clients from the mining, manufacturing and land development industries, and also specialising in liquor licensing law, Mr van Merwyk successfully built up his practice and was made a Parker & Parker partner in 1995.  The firm later merged with Perth’s other major law firm, Freehills, in 1997.

Today he is the Freehills head of environment and planning and sports industry practice. From an original team of two at Parker & Parker, Mr van Merwyk now works with seven other environmental planning lawyers and has worked with around 80 per cent of the State’s mining companies, 50 per cent of large manufacturing houses and a third of Perth’s top-end developers.

He said a large factor shaping the foundation to his success was being allowed to attend the Chamber of Minerals and Energy environment committee meetings, which comprised of some of the top environmental scientists and managers in the State.

“They exhibited a lot of patience … they trained me by osmosis into the language of the environmental management industry,” Mr van Merwyk said.

In his role as head of environment and planning practice Mr van Merwyk provides advice on all aspects of environment and planning, undertakes environmental law audits, due diligence, environmental management systems, ministerial, tribunal and Supreme Court planning appeals and environmental litigation.

He said a desire to see the environment properly managed was at the heart of the practice, something that needed to be approached with a philosophical balance.

Mr van Merwyk said the biggest challenge in his position was keeping up with new information about environmental issues, policy development, community sentiment and technological changes.

“You have to keep the search for knowledge going,” he said.

Mr van Merwyk said he was fortunate that WA was home to some excellent environmental planning professionals within government, industry and conservation organisations  

“WA has some very good environmental planning management by those that are charged with looking after it,” he said. “The environmental compliance area is a mix of law, policy and science, it is the mix that makes it such an interesting area to work in.”

And with a suite of environmental legislation changes currently before parliament, and more expected to come, environmental law should continue to be an interesting and challenging area to work in.

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