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Land clearing photos invalid
Farmer Peter Swift. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

A landmark court judgment has cast doubt on the ability of WA's environmental watchdog to use aerial photographs and satellite images to prosecute farmers and others accused of illegally clearing land.

The Department of Environmental Regulation said it was assessing consequences of the judgment that resulted in South West landowner Peter Swift winning a three-year legal battle involving 14ha of native vegetation. The ruling has increased pressure on the State Government to reform land clearing laws so that disputes are settled outside the criminal system.

Mr Swift's lawyer Glen McLeod said the judgment showed Magistrate Elizabeth Hamilton had reservations about the aerial photographs and satellite images that underpinned the DER's case.

"The magistrate also found that acceptance of what the aerial photographs and satellite images portray, without reservation and consideration of other evidence, carries with it the potential for a miscarriage of justice," he said.

Mr McLeod, an adjunct professor at Murdoch University who was recently appointed to the board of the Environmental Protection Authority, said the case raised questions about how the legal system should deal with clearing cases involving "ordinary citizens who would not normally see the inside of a criminal court".

"There is also a broader question about the complexity of the laws relating to clearing and whether some revision should be considered," he said.

Mr Swift maintained his innocence throughout an ordeal that took a big toll on his health and livelihood. He had never been to court before the case and faced a maximum fine of $250,000 if convicted under section 51C of the Environmental Protection Act.

Mr Swift bought a 485ha "lifestyle" property not big enough to run as a standalone commercial farm near Manjimup in 2007.

The judgment noted that he had worked hard to protect the environmental attributes of the property, that he had no motive for the alleged offence and that none was ever suggested by the prosecution.

In a scathing assessment of the DER case, Ms Hamilton said one of the allegations, if upheld, would "create a farcical situation whose proportions could only be envisaged by Sir Humphrey Appleby".

Mr Swift said the judgment exposed major flaws in the system.

"There should be a better way of dealing with matters rather than in a criminal court," he said.