Fighting for people and planet

This article appears in Africa-Legal

There are times when South African environmental attorney Kirsten Youens wakes at 3am, battling to breathe and uncertain about how to help her clients or fund her work. She spoke to Tony Carnie.

“I take injustice very personally and struggle to understand people who cannot see what is right…So, when things go wrong, my first reaction is to try and fix things,” she says.

Last month – at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown – Youens faced a series of dilemmas after one of her clients in a remote rural area received death threats. Just days later more than a dozen bullets were fired at the walls and windows of another home in the same area.

Who could be trusted with her client’s safety? Who had the means to move him quickly, especially during lockdown?

“Ultimately, I realised there was no choice. I had to go myself,” says Youens, “So that’s what I did. I drove up there and took him somewhere, far away. Luckily, I had applied for a permit (to conduct essential services as an attorney) because I was stopped at police road blocks four times en route.”

Youens is the sole proprietor of Youens Attorneys and chief executive director of the new All Rise climate and environmental justice group, both based in the port city of Durban.

“All Rise is made up of attorneys, environmental custodians and community partners. We use the power of the law and the strength of good will to protect the planet and all that reside on it.  We are the voice for a planet that can’t fight back, and for communities and individuals who have tried but have not yet been heard,” according to its website.

An environmental and animal rights activist from an early age, Youens studied law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her LLM thesis was entitled: A Moral and Legal Discussion on the Standing of Animals in South African Law.

After cutting her teeth at Shepstone and Wylie, then Garlicke and Bousfield, she established her own practice in 2006 and worked for several industrial clients.

But in 2009, following a dramatic accident, the mother of three small children began to re-evaluate her life and decided to follow her real passions and ethics, away from the corporate environment.

Thereafter, her focus shifted back to underdogs, defending communities affected by coal mining or contesting coastal oil and gas expansion plans.

“The more I work with communities in rural areas the more I realise that human rights, animal rights and the environment are all connected.”

Late last year she founded the new non-profit group All Rise, in partnership with fellow attorneys Janice Tooley and Trudie Nichols. The name incorporates a message for activists to stand in solidarity, along with the legal phrase uttered before a judge enters a court room.

“I would love to say that All Rise is flying, but it’s not… not yet. We are very lucky that our advocates have been willing to help us on a pro bono basis, but you also need money and it’s not easy to secure funding for attorneys’ fees and disbursements.”

To find out more about ALL RISE and how you can help click here

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