Activists win historic ruling on ‘people’s law on the environment’

26.8.2010 (The Ecologist)

Crippling costs of legal action prevents people mounting challenges over environmental
damage, finds UN Committee


Activists were celebrating a damning ruling today on the UK’s legal system which
could now make it easier for individuals and NGOs to protect the environment.

Under the Aarhus Convention, signed by the UK in 1998, people should not be denied environmental justice
because of the unreasonable financial risks of bringing a case to court.

A team of legal activists had brought the case to the UN committee overseeing
this Convention arguing that the UK was in breach and that bad environmental decisions
were not being challenged.

Prevented from justice

Recently, the Marine Conservation Society was unable to mount a legal challenge
against allegations of toxic waste dumping near the Port of Tyne, Newcastle, because
of fears over the potentially crippling costs of losing the case.

In another example cited by the legal activists, a local resident was faced with
a legal bill of more than £80,000 after challenging permission given to a cement
factory to burn tyres because of health fears over the fumes on the local community.

The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee agreed and said the UK’s legal system
did not, ‘remove or reduce financial barriers to access to justice’. It called
on the UK to ‘undertake practical and legislative measures to overcome the problems’.

A victory for green groups

A coalition of environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, WWF and
RSPB, who have been campaigning on the issue welcomed the decision and said the
UK now had ‘no option but to amend the cost rules so people and environmental
groups can go to court to protect the environment.’

The legal activists who brought the case to the UN, ClientEarth, said the decision
was ‘game-changing’ for anyone
fighting for their environmental rights.

‘At the moment, the government and industries can ride roughshod over their environmental
responsibilities, confident that the legal system’s failings will make challenges


‘If the government’s word is to mean anything on the international stage, it
must move effectively and decisively to remedy the gross unfairness of the UK
legal system,’ said CEO ClientEarth James Thornton.

UK given warning

The UK has already been warned by the EU Commission about the unfair cost of challenging decisions that impact on the environment.
In March, 2010, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik threatened legal action
if the UK ignored the request.

A review by Lord Justice Jackson earlier this year may go some way, if accepted,
to meeting that request.
It recommended that people bringing civil cases should not normally be at risk of having to pay the other side’s costs. However, it did not indicate whether
people would be aware of their liability for costs beforehand.

In reference to that review, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice admitted
that high costs under the existing legal system had become a ‘serious concern’
and that a consultation would be launched this Autumn to ‘achieve significant
costs savings, whilst still enabling those who need access to justice to obtain

In relation to the Aarhus ruling, a government spokesperson said it was, ‘carefully
considering the Committee’s recently published draft findings along with our comments
for submission to the Committee in order to assist the Committee finalise its

link to article

Useful links

The Aarhus Convention



see also


16.9.2010 (Friends of the Earth)

Victory on legal costs

Bringing environmental cases to court could get cheaper – thanks to a recent
victory for Friends of the Earth and allies.

Access to justice

High court fees can  prevent individuals and community groups from challenging environmental decisions in court.

This goes against the International Aarhus convention which was put in place to protect rights of participation, access to information
and justice.

The UK is required to follow the convention. But the current system does not ensure low costs.

Change the rules

Friends  of the Earth and  the Coalition on  Access to Justice (CAJE) explained this to the Aarhus convention  compliance committee.

The committee has agreed with us and recommended that the UK court rules are changed to meet the requirement of the Aarhus Convention.

Friends of the Earth and CAJE will be following up on these decisions with the
UK Government.  

We’ll continue to push for a fair system for bringing environmental challenges to court.


Read the earlier Friends of the Earth story on this >