05 Apr The Service Delivery Hugger
When you talk environmental law, many people roll their eyes and think of bunny huggers and protesters in loose-fitting, cheese-cloth shirts. The truth is that the discipline packs a mighty punch as it encompasses a wide range of fields that are vital for our welfare.
“Most people think that environmental law is just about protecting the trees and saving the whales, but what people don’t understand is that environmental health is also about people’s well-being, and a lot of our health is connected to sustainable cities, infrastructure provision and service delivery, such as the removal of waste and the provision of water and sanitation. It’s making sure that you can live comfortably in a city without getting sick,” says Advocate Samantha Jane Martin, a practicing lawyer in South Africa and a specialist litigator. “Pollution knows no jurisdiction and no boundaries.”
Environmental conservation and human health have an incredibly close inter-relationship that overlaps with fields as seemingly diverse as service delivery, procurement, mining, occupational health, town planning, water, air quality, biodiversity, climate change, food security, disaster management and waste management.
Advocate Martin’s education is broad and extensive, having been schooled at Roedean In Joburg before studying at most of South Africa’s top universities. After completing her LLB she added a B Com LLB to her credentials and completed several international diplomas in Switzerland in international environmental law, notably in International Environmental Law, Environmental Compliance, International Environmental Negotiation and Environmental Governance. It wasn’t the conventional career path for an LLB graduate, and while her friends were buying handbags and shoes at upmarket boutiques, Martin was out saving the whales, birds, woodlands, forests and wetlands.
“Greta Thunberg really does strike a chord with me, and I just got more and more involved in environmentalism and that’s what led me to join the bar as a calling, because I just found it so frustrating that I couldn’t litigate on issues that needed to be litigated on,” recalls Advocate Martin, who holds an LLM in environmental law and is undertaking research currently on sustainable infrastructure provision.
“I have a real passion for natural resources and also for people, so it’s been a long journey. Nothing’s been overnight. I started off with absolutely nothing. When I joined the bar my involvement in my community project had flattened my savings, because I was literally working to fund the project. Nobody gave me a silver spoon to eat from,” she laughs.
The next step on her extensive educational ladder was completing a master’s degree in environmental law, researching shareholder activism and director liability, after which she immersed herself in earning qualifications in arbitration mediation and construction adjudication.
Advocate Martin had by then already started giving back in another way as a director of SABWiL (the South African Black Women in Law), a non-profit organisation that serves as an educational platform for students offering mentorship and a moot court, in addition to skills enhancement for the next generation of lawyers.
“SABWiL has been running for quite a few years now and we specifically target university students, but it’s not restricted to only women. It’s also open to students from underprivileged backgrounds who want to learn certain practical skills. We run mentorship programs in terms of linking these students up to advocates and attorneys so that they can go to work and see what it’s all really about at the coalface,” adds Advocate Martin, who has studied French and Mandarin Chinese.
Women are largely marginalised in the legal fraternity, although thankfully this has changed dramatically over the past two decades, yet they still face substantial challenges, not least in terms of how they are perceived based on their appearances.
“Many female students who I engage with on mentorship programs tell me that they are absolutely terrified of going into law because they don’t want to lose the fact that they are a woman, that they are feminine and prefer to be soft-spoken or a little bit gentler. I always tell them that they don’t need to compromise those qualities, but at the same time it’s important for them to surround themselves with social networks and romantic partners who do understand and who are sensitive to their calling, because it’s a vocational calling for a reason,” says Advocate Martin, who adds the startling anecdotal evidence that the majority of women leave the bar after three years because they’ve decided to start having children and need to take leave so that they are able to pick up their children and to have more of a regulated timeframe to cater for the needs of their family.
“I think that’s possibly the biggest hurdle, but the second biggest hurdle is barriers of entry to the profession in the first place. I’m also a big believer that women need to start collaborating and working together in order to create support systems that will help them progress in their careers, which men have been doing for decades. I find that women work in silos and they’re a little bit nervous of uplifting other women,” she adds.
A major area of concern specific to the local environmental and construction industry are the huge problems the South African building industry is having with the so-called construction mafia, which involves mafia people hijacking construction sites and insisting that they are given certain work.
“It’s a strong-arm, bullying tactic that has become a risk to the country, and something that the government needs to address as a matter of urgency,” stresses Advocate Martin, for whom personal leadership revolves around the fact that actions speak far louder than words. “If you’re leading with integrity, honesty and hard work, then I find that you develop a reputation for that and it gets around that that’s how you live your life, that’s how you work and that informs the standard to which you aspire. I honestly believe that you can be as intelligent as you like, and you can be as highly qualified as you like, but if you can’t meet your commitments, if you have a lack of routine, honesty and motivation, then you can forget it. You’re just not going to get out of the starting blocks.”
For Advocate Martin, the future is particularly exciting as the realm of environmental law is developing to such an extent that, from a tertiary perspective, institutions no longer want to offer master’s degrees in environmental law per se… there is a growing focus on specialising in relevant areas across the wide range of disciplines that now slot into the broader field of environmental law.
“This ranges from water law to mining law, and even air quality law, because it’s such a vastly and rapidly developing field. I would encourage people to look at environmental law in terms of service delivery. A healthy environment and a healthy city is predominantly good for the people living there—it’s not something to see as a negative because I get a lot of clients who confirm for me that the environmental legislation in South Africa holds the development world in place.
A major change that Advocate Martin has witnessed has been the digitalisation of most industries, and the legal fraternity in particular have benefitted immensely from the digitalisation of case records and legal reference books. While some people might think that this might make it easier to represent oneself in legal matters, Advocate Martin cautions against this, highlighting that you wouldn’t want to trust Google with all of your medical diagnoses, so similarly you wouldn’t want to risk your business assets or even your freedom on some random Googling.
“Through years and decades of experience lawyers develop a highly clinical and objective way to assess possible risks, but over and above that, the best kind of legal service you can get is not putting out fires, but rather to manage your risks from the outset, and make sure that you are well protected,” says Advocate Martin, stressing that this is particularly important in environmental law to protect against potentially costly mistakes, both financial and in terms of the environment and the effects such damage could have on the people living in an area.
“If you get the right forensic skills at the outset, it could really save you a lot of pain and drama further down the road,” concludes Advocate Martin.