UN says UK’s court system prevents access to environmental justice

It may be an understatement to say that the environmental movement is going through a rough patch. In the wake of the Copenhagen summit climate change scepticism shows little sign of going away.

Our guest author is Lewis Merdler, Communications Assistant for ClientEarth

It may be an understatement to say that the environmental movement is going through a rough patch. In the wake of the Copenhagen summit climate change scepticism shows little sign of going away. This is despite record breaking global temperatures, the collapse of ice sheets, devastating droughts in Russia and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Pakistan.

The coalition government, after making a pledge of becoming the greenest government ever, has slashed environmental funding, dissolved the Sustainable Development Commission and is potentially reneging on its pledges for clean coal.

Climate protests at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Edinburgh headquarters have received a backlash from the media, even from typically supportive sections of the press. Now there are calls to reform the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change. However, during this tumultuous period where good news seems all too rare, a small but highly significant victory has just been won.

Last week, a group of environmental activist lawyers, ClientEarth, won a landmark case against the government that could open a whole new branch of environmental campaigning in the UK, giving environmentalists at the end of their tether a new and much needed tool to support their cause.

A UN committee has said the UK government must change the rules so that it is possible for ordinary people to challenge the actions of public bodies when environmental protection is at stake. On Thursday the UN’s Aarhus Committee responded to a case brought to it by ClientEarth with a draft finding that the UK government is in breach of the Aarhus Convention, which was ratified by both the UK and the EU in 2005.

One of the key pillars of the convention is to ensure that all EU citizens have access to environmental justice, one of the main barriers to which is the exorbitant cost of bringing a case. Current cost rules in the UK often force unsuccessful claimants to cover their opponents’ legal fees, as well as their own and the court’s costs.

If, for example, you decided to take on the government for issuing a licence to a company to mine minerals in a nature reserve or burn toxic waste in an urban area, and for whatever reason you lost the case, you would have to pay your legal fees and those of the government. A single-day hearing in the UK courts could cost over £100,000. Very few individuals or public interest groups have the resources to risk being landed with a bill of this size even if they think they have a good case.

Worse still, if the case had delayed a company, like BP for example, from drilling for nine months your liability to them could run into millions of pounds. The UK courts are out of line with all other EU countries on the costs citizens face when they fight for their rights. With the committee’s recommendations, this should change. The government is now under pressure to fundamentally reform the way UK courts operate to allow citizens access to environmental justice.

This is a real opportunity for the coalition government to step up to its green rhetoric and make the court system accessible to those who want to make environmental cases in the public interest.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth:

“Access to justice should not be a privileged right for the few.  People who wish to bring cases to the courts about environmental concerns do so in the interests of the public and should not have to run the risk of financial ruin.

“The committee’s recommendations confirm that. This is a stark call to make our system of justice fair and accessible to those protecting the environment.We now look forward to hearing from the government the steps they will take to meet their obligations under international law.”

The committee’s findings are a vital step in the path towards access to justice, but it essential that the journey doesn’t stop here. ClientEarth will continue using legal mechanisms to put pressure on the government to meet the Aarhus obligations.

Empowering citizens is a core theme of Cameron and Clegg’s government. Reforming the court system so ordinary people can take on big business, and even the state itself, is an idea that should sit comfortably in the Big Society agenda. Nick Clegg has talked of a quiet green revolution. Now the environmental movement is empowered to shout louder.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.