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Reflecting on the connection between law reform and litigation

In anticipation of CELA’s upcoming 50th anniversary, I have been reflecting on the relationship between CELA’s law reform and litigation work. The best analogy that comes to mind is the relationship between public health and health care; public health is about preventing disease and promoting human health, while health care is about providing treatment to people who are already sick. CELA’s law reform work tries to prevent the public health and environmental issues from arising in the first place. If that first line of defence fails, and a public health or environmental threat materializes, litigation is an appropriate response to try to remedy the wrong.

One great example of CELA’s past law reform work was its project on standard setting to protect the health of children in Ontario. It also detailed the greater susceptibility and exposure of children to environmental contaminants. The findings of that report led to multiple revisions in the Pest Control Products Act that improve protections for children from pesticide exposure. It also led to greater recognition and protection of children from other environmental pollutants

Another great example was CELA’s work to bring about a federal ban on asbestos. CELA advocated for years for a ban, highlighting the evidence of deaths from mesothelioma as a result of exposure. The ban is significant to protect the health of Canadians, particularly in the occupational sector. It is far preferable to prevent people from getting sick in the first place, rather than seeking compensation for their illnesses and deaths after they happen.  

It’s hard to measure the success of a public health or law reform effort – its effectiveness lies in the people who are not sick, and the damage to the environment that has not been done.

Litigation arises when the laws we have in place to protect the environment and human health don’t work. At CELA, we prioritize cases that concern the impacts of environmental harm on human health. As one example, CELA counsel represented the Concerned Citizens of Brant (CCOB) in an Environmental Review Tribunal hearing in relation to a gravel pit using the herbicide atrazine because of concerns about groundwater contamination.  

There are of course countless more examples. I’m certainly looking forward to continuing CELA’s work to both prevent public health and environmental harms in the first place, and to litigate to remedy wrongs that have been caused where that first line of defence fails.