Influencing environmental law through better access to justice

A network of environmental lawyers is empowering EU citizens to use their rights under international law, by building tools to help challenge lawbreaking through the courts.

Access to justice and why it matters

Under the international 1998 Aarhus Convention, the public has the right to information held by public authorities on environmental issues. The convention also ensures the right to take part in decision-making which affects the environment, and the right to review and challenge decisions that have been made without respecting these rights or environmental law.

These rights encourage people to get involved in environmental decision-making and support transparency.

But 20 years after the convention was adopted, there are still limitations or restrictions to the ways in which EU countries have implemented access to justice in environmental matters.

The Access to Justice project

Access to justice is the means for people, by themselves or with NGOs, to challenge lawbreaking through the courts. For those concerned about the environment, and for the ATOJ EARL team, this means

  • informing people about existing rules and case law
  • explaining the importance of access to justice around implementing environmental law and policies
  • highlighting the factors that block access, both nationally and EU-wide
  • coming up with methods to overcome legal challenges and obstacles to effective access to justice

Czech NGO Justice and Environment and UK-based ClientEarth jointly manage the LIFE project ATOJ EARL, which has been running since July 2017. The project targets legal professionals in 9 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Spain. It runs with help from affiliates in these countries who are legal organisations and environment networks.

“Each affiliate is assigned different tasks by the project team, and we contact them for input where their national perspective is useful”, explained Diane Vandesmet, communications officer for the project at ClientEarth. “For example, at the end of January we’re publishing a handbook on access to justice, rules and case law written by different lawyers from ClientEarth.”

Tools and training

The EARL team is developing long-term, living tools for legal professionals and public administrations, with help from its partners around the EU.

An online platform is being built to help lawyers with ongoing cases. “You can think of it as a kind of decision tree,” said Diane Vandesmet. “At the end of it, legal professionals who still have questions to ask will be in contact with a lawyer best placed to help them.”

ClientEarth has also recently started publishing a growing contact list of environmental legal experts. This, together with an expanding wealth of case law and decisions, will continue to be updated online.

In November, the Hungarian Environmental Management and Law Association (EMLA) organised a training session on the ATOJ EARL project for environmental authorities, judiciary, academia and civil actors. Another training session within the project was held in December at Limoges University in France.

These sessions are part of a series run by the project on the Aarhus Convention, how it impacts the rights of the public, public participation and barriers to access to justice. In total, 50 training sessions are planned during the lifespan of the project.

Highlighting national gaps

Through its affiliate organisations, the EARL team also reports on how EU countries are complying with Aarhus, and where gaps exist.

In Austria, for example, the network ÖKOBÜRO recently reported how the country limits appeals only to water law proceedings with “considerable negative effects”.  ÖKOBÜRO argues that this scope is insufficient under Austria’s obligations.

Another example is in the UK, where ClientEarth is responding to concerns about cost caps and expensive liability costs. These are financial factors which can put off NGOs or individuals from bringing environmental cases because they could be seen as ‘too expensive to win’.