It's a niche specialisation which doesn't make the headlines every day, but with increasing regulation, and economic pressures emerging from the GFC, aviation law is making its mark on the legal landscape.
At Queensland firm Carter Newell Lawyers, the aviation law practice extends back 20 years, but senior partner Paul Hopkins explains that it's a narrow field that has attracted few players.
"It's a very, very narrow industry - either you're in it or you're not. I go to the Australian Aviation Insurance Law conference each year and it's largely the same people," he said.
The firm's four-lawyer team advises underwriters and brokers, as well as those involved in the general aviation industry, such as aircraft operators and airlines, ground handlers, aircraft maintenance engineers, flight schools and product manufacturers.
Another significant client base for the firm is airports - an area Hopkins describes as "its own world of law". It was the complexity - and sheer volume - of regulation impacting on these airport clients that prompted the firm to develop and recently launch the Australian Airport's Liability and Compliance Guide (Guide).
The aim of the Guide, which is the first of its kind in Australia, is to assist airports with compliance obligations, by outlining the relevant case law and penalties that relate to their operations.
"It came out of the fact that we've been working closely with airports for a long time now - not just in Qld, but various airports around Australia - and we could see that there were particular areas of concern that kept coming up," Hopkins said. "They were: design and development, operation services and pricing, safety and security, and environment and culture. So we put a lot of thought into what the market would really value, then we put the hard yards in and [produced the guide]."
In particular, he said, higher environmental regulation is of increasing significance for airport clients. "I think the airports are developing a greater awareness of the challenges. With airports, they're really looking to grow cities, so there are tensions between complying with the planning legislation and ensuring they're keeping up with community concerns - there are a lot of issues there," he said.
The release of the guide was also timely, he said, given the increasing pressures airports are facing as a result of the GFC.
"Certainly airports ... are not immune from the effects of the global financial crisis - you only need to read the papers to see the pressure some of the carriers are under. And that then impacts on airlines around the world, because the carriers are trying to get their routes correct - so they're avoiding landing where they don't have to because that cuts down on landing fees - so the impact is there," he said.
He added that, as in other fields of law, the GFC has resulted in a spike in litigation in the aviation space. "We're seeing companies that would bear a loss a few years ago, because they were trading much better, now have to seek recompense," he says.
Carter Newell's Australian Airport's Liability and Compliance Guide was launched at a recent ceremony in Brisbane by the newly appointed CEO and managing director of Brisbane Airport, Julianne Alore.
- Zoe Lyon