Legal expert to give Victoria free guidance for fossil-fuel case

Victoria city council and other local governments interested in suing fossil-fuel companies to recoup some of the costs associated with climate change will soon have access to free advice from a leading constitutional lawyer.

Joseph Arvay confirmed in an interview that his firm, Arvay Finlay, has been retained to prepare a legal opinion on the strategy and likelihood of success of a lawsuit by Canadian municipalities against fossil-fuel companies to recover infrastructure costs associated with sea level rise and extreme weather due to climate change.

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Arvay declined to identify the client, but said he has informed the cities of Victoria and Vancouver that he’s prepared to share the opinion with them and other interested municipalities at no additional cost.

“We haven’t worked out the actual details of the terms of sharing the agreement, but we would want to have some assurance that [the advice] remains confidential,” he said.

Arvay said it’s an issue that he has been thinking about for a long time.

“It’s obviously a very timely subject,” he said Friday as thousands of people cheered and marched past his office on Douglas Street in Victoria as part of a global climate strike.

“And I consider it just a really important issue. I mean, there’s a lot of different ways in which members of the public can deal with climate change. Governments have a role, regular members of the public have a role, the media have a role and we lawyers have a role.

“I don’t know what the upshot of the opinion is going to be, but I wouldn’t have taken it on unless I thought that there was a reasonable argument to be made that the fossil-fuel companies need to pay their fair share of the damages that they incurred by their conduct.

“It’s a complicated legal question and we’re going to consider all sides of it and eventually give our opinion — but it’s obviously a subject matter that warrants a serious opinion.”

Victoria city council approved a resolution last January calling on the Union of B.C. Municipalities to look at initiating a class- action lawsuit against fossil-fuel corporations on behalf of local governments.

Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt withdrew the resolution at the UBCM convention Friday in light of Arvay’s ongoing work on the issue.

“It didn’t make sense to expend UBCM resources on something that was already happening at no cost to local government,” he said.

“So we announced that a legal opinion would be available and we invited any local government to work with us collectively to explore our options.”

Isitt said he expects Arvay’s opinion will be available to local governments later this fall.

“And then, with eyes wide open and a full understanding of the legal implications and potential path forward, Victoria will be able to decide whether to take the next step in terms of pursuing a lawsuit against the global fossil-fuel companies,” he said.

Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, welcomed news of Arvay’s involvement.

“Obviously, we’re thrilled,” he said. “It’s absolutely essential that local governments have top-quality legal advice on their options to ensure that 100 per cent of climate costs don’t fall to the taxpayer.

“The assumption right now of governments, of industry, of just about everybody is that these billions of dollars of costs that are facing us in the future belong to the public, and the industry that has made hundreds of billions of dollars of profit — trillions of dollars of profits — from the product that gave rise to that harm [is] expecting to just pocket those profits and walk away.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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