Restorative Practices in Environmental Law: Part 1

Photo Credit: Mike Kofahl Photo Credit: Mike Kofahl

I was first introduced to restorative practice in my second summer of law school when I spent two months working at the Community Justice Society (“CJS”) in Halifax. CJS runs the restorative justice program for the Department of Justice in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

I quickly learned to appreciate how impactful and effective restorative practices can be, and during my third year of law school I received formal training from CJS to become a volunteer restorative justice facilitator. More recently, I received training in the Options to Anger program, which is an education program that teaches people who have caused harm to understand their issues with anger and find solutions to be more responsible for their anger.

Since my time at CJS, I seek to apply restorative principles in my personal life, and, now, in my legal practice. I believe that restorative practice is a perfect fit in any legal practice and especially so in the environmental law field.

So, what is a restorative practice? In a nutshell, it involves using a principled approach to bring people together with the aim of building social capital and achieving social discipline. It involves participation, education, and collective decision-making.

Restorative practice is guided by many important principles. Fair process is one of the most fundamental and involves creating a space where each participant is given an opportunity to be heard and where each voice is allowed to speak. Fair process allows for each voice to be acknowledged, understood, and accepted.

The idea behind fair process is that when people engage with each other and work together, the results of that process are better and fairer than if the participants had not worked together. The process aims to create trust and build relationships, and it creates a space where participation and genuine engagement allow for collective—for community—decision-making.

Restorative practice builds trust and relationships through community engagement, and that makes it invaluable in the practice of environmental law. Because communities are, in my mind, at the heart of environmental law. And because, perhaps more than any other broad area of law—and environmental law is broad—environmental law serves not just individuals, but communities.

As an environmental lawyer, I see many communities. On one level, there is the closely-knit community of legal practitioners that practice some form of environmental law in an already small province.

On another level, there is the community of environmental non-profit organizations and individuals, working every day with one another to find solutions to our most pressing environmental issues.

And then there are the communities that are the focal points of environmental issues that are at the forefront of our minds and hearts. The collection of individuals who fight to prevent destructive activities and generational alterations to the landscape of our province, who advocate for environmental protections, and who call for environmental justice and equity.

Think of the community of Pictou Land First Nation, which has suffered adverse health impacts from the toxic chemicals in Boat Harbour for generations. Or of the community of Harrietsfield, which has been calling for clean drinking water for nearly a decade. These are only two of a plethora of communities whose environments are being impacting every day.

As children around the world call for greater action in the face of climate change, as Indigenous groups demand greater accountability, healing, and reconciliation, and as grassroots movements continue to resist unsustainable industrial practices, it is communities that bear the brunt of environmental destruction and inaction on our environmental issues.

That is why restorative practices belong in environmental law. It is why we need to do more, as environmental lawyers, as communities, and as government, to build restorative practices into environmental law.

Mike Kofahl

Staff Lawyer, East Coast Environmental Law

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