Protecting people and the planet


With just 100 staff, ClientEarth has recently attracted more headlines than the top law firms and is introducing new legal models to Europe and China. Founder James Thornton and Development Director Rob Ryan talk to Neasa MacErlean about early successes and future horizons.

On 2 November 2016 ClientEarth was one of the top three UK news stories of the day, winning a High Court case against the government over illegal air quality levels. So decisive was the victory that the prime minister’s team accepted the outcome with some grace, promising to work to remedy the situation. For the five-office international organisation, the judgment was the culmination of an eight-year campaign and a demonstration to the public and to potential funders of the seriousness of its environmental intent.

Founded just ten years ago, ClientEarth has hit the bullseye through this win – and others. Using an American model, the charity is a practice which works for the public good and raises funds through large and small donors. The New York-born Thornton, now based in London as the CEO, acknowledges the potential effect of the High Court case on the profile of ClientEarth. He says that it “helps to raise awareness of one of our key areas of work and of how we go about using the law as a tool to help protect people and the planet”.

The High Court case – ClientEarth V Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – is a good example of the challenges the organisation faces in taking actions that can be controversial and seeking to fund these with donations and assistance from law firms, larger charities, private individuals and others. Eight years ago, the preliminary research into this area was funded by the small amounts of unrestricted funding that ClientEarth receives. (Most funding is earmarked for a particular area of work – fisheries, for instance, or protecting threatened animal species). When it was able to prove that the UK government was in breach of the law, the organisation attracted specific funding from a couple of small donors. As the case became larger and ClientEarth realised it needed to carry out a publicity campaign, its Development team contacted the City Bridge Trust, whose mission includes tackling “disadvantage in London” and “influencing social policy”.

The aims of ClientEarth and the City Bridge Trust were well aligned because poor air quality in the British capital affects low-income and other disadvantaged groups more than others (partly because they tend to live in unhealthier areas). Rob Ryan heads the Development group, the seven-person team which carries out fund-raising. “We are almost always scanning for potential opportunities and potential environmental threats,” he says. When the lawyers highlight an issue – river pollution in Germany, for example – the Boston-born Ryan works closely with them to find sponsors. “We match the keys to the locks,” he says. “We pitch in ways to make the cause relevant to the potential funders.”

If it stuck to the well-known issues, ClientEarth might be able to grow even faster than it does at the moment. (In 2014, according to its last set of published accounts, it received £4.75m in funding, up 17% on 2013.) But its legal team is concerned to find new areas of threat – as was the dirty air case in 2009. “It’s often the ‘tip of the spear’ areas that are harder to fund,” says Ryan. As its name suggests, ClientEarth regards Mother Nature as its ultimate client and works hard to find out what the planet wants. “Nature speaks to us through the grammar of science,” says Thornton who defines ClientEarth as using “advocacy, litigation and science” to protect the environment. So, as well as taking cases, the charity also helps write environmental law and advises on smart enforcement. “It’s a close client relationship,” he adds.

With offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw and New York, the charity is now also considering its options regarding opening an office in Beijing. ClientEarth has been welcomed to China by the authorities there so that it can help train judges, lawyers and enforcers to deal well with the Republic’s raft of new environmental laws.

ClientEarth is not an organisation struggling to survive. Its difficulties, according to Ryan, lie instead in prioritising the issues it will tackle. It has collaborations with many law firms. Some provide free advice to the charity about how it runs itself and, for instance, how to comply with the complicated charity laws. Others help it take action in their local jurisdiction. For instance, the UK High Court case is being followed by similar challenges across the EU. To persuade law firms and other donors to give their time and money, ClientEarth has to prove that, despite bringing cases against governments, it is a reliable and serious organisation. There is “surprisingly little” difficulty here, says Ryan. “We tell our donors on air quality, for instance, that this relates to a clear, written obligation and that it is not just about our view.”

It is more than coincidence that both Thornton and Ryan are American. The US developed the model of public interest law, “a methodology which is not widely used or understood outside the US”, according to Ryan. In the US there are other groups that use this approach and, in that location, ClientEarth has more difficulty differentiating itself than it does outside American borders. But the charity located its first fund-raiser in the US in August, in the New York office, partly because, as Ryan says, “there is a more advanced approach to philanthropy in the US”.

Unlike traditional law firms, ClientEarth can happily broadcast testimonials from superstars whose reach is broader than the most powerful commercial clients. Musician Brian Eno is a trustee who has shared platforms with Thornton and whose creativity reflects an imaginative approach within ClientEarth. And the group Coldplay launched the ClientEarth campaign with a group selfie and published the ClientEarth hashtags for its ‘#No2DirtyAir’ campaign at concerts.

ClientEarth focuses on its one and only client in its work – but it is clear that there will be other consequences coming from

that relationship. The public law model has been established in Europe and Asia, and we can expect to see other organisations following the path that Thornton and his team opened up.