Targeting High, Consistent Ethical Standards
1 December 2005
Institute Targets High and Consistent Ethical Standards
Environmental professionals have been reminded of the need to be objective and set high ethical standards when acting on behalf of applicants for resource consents.
A seminar for environment professionals, including scientists, consultants and independent advisors has highlighted the role of ethics in achieving the best outcome for resource consent applicants, the environment and the community.
The one-day event in Christchurch was organised by the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ) as part of a programme of continuing professional development in an industry which is essentially unregulated. A range of presenters noted that while ethical standards are generally good, there are still some lingering problems, including:
- Selective referencing of information presented in assessments of environmental effects (AEEs)
- Omission of information that may not be favourable to the applicant’s case
- A tendency to advocate on behalf of clients, leading to a loss of objectivity and a more adversarial process which increases costs for all involved.
Former Environment Court Judge Peter Skelton says selective referencing was “more common than one might think” during his 22 years on the bench, but may have improved in recent years.
There had also been some significant cases of outright inaccuracy. “In one case an international expert from a prestigious institute gave evidence in an application for an LPG pipeline which sounded fine until it was reviewed by a University of Canterbury mathematician. It was found to have fundamental errors that caused a gross underestimating of environmental risks associated with proposal. If it had not been checked we would have been none the wiser, and the conditions placed on the approval could have been quite different.”
Peter Skelton said some expert witness make the mistake of advocating for an outcome. “It is often thought that expert witnesses are “hired guns” who will conveniently provide opinions to support a client’s case because they are being paid to do so.
“Unfortunately, such so-called expert witnesses are not unknown to the law and in particular to resource management litigation. However the great majority of expert witnesses do recognise their duty to be independent and thus retain their integrity and credibility.”
Peter Skelton says the resource consent process should have become less expensive and more efficient, with experience, but this had yet to occur. “It should be getting less adversarial, but it is not, and the problem is not in the way the Resource Management Act is worded.”
The EIANZ event urged environment practitioners to be vigilant on good ethical practice by taking a collegial approach and being open to advice and feedback from others.
Co-organiser Leo Fietje says the resource consent process is often hampered by misleading information, significant omissions and selective use of data, leading to increased need for review which results in time delays, increased costs and unnecessary stress all round.
“In my experience applicants who tell it like it is can easily halve the time taken to process their resource consents, because all of the information is there and there is no need for further investigation. In many cases a decision can be made in minutes if the applicant’s representative is thorough and objective.”
“We are essentially an unregulated profession in which people make a living by giving their professional advice, and so it is very important that we are able to self regulate through a professional body that provides guidance and encourages good professional practice.”
EIANZ is considering offering a similar event in other major centres, and may also form an ethics sub group to focus on further professional development.
The Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand is an association of environmental practitioners established to facilitate interaction among environmental professionals; promote environmental knowledge and awareness; and advance ethical and competent environmental practice.