Strengthening public access to justice
The European Union has some of the most advanced laws to protect the environment in the world. But what happens when they are not applied properly? The European Commission has acted to ensure citizens can claim justice when their environmental rights are not respected.
The EU has taken action to protect Europe’s natural environment since the 1970s. EU rules and policies aim to safeguard human health as well as biodiversity, to ensure natural resources are used with care, and to combat climate change.
European Commission Vice-President
EU environmental rules also guarantee rights – for example, to individuals, community groups and NGOs – when national and local authorities fail to implement EU environmental laws as they should.
For instance, citizens’ action has prompted important rulings by the European Court of Justice. In 2014, it opened the way for environmental campaigners to put legal pressure on the UK government to step up action to cut chronic and noxious air pollution in cities. In 2011, it backed a Slovak NGO seeking to strengthen the protection of brown bears, ruling that it had the right to be heard.
So the European public – whether individuals, groups or businesses – play a vital role in keeping an eye on the way laws are put into practice.
The Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998, gave Europeans the legal right to access information, take part in decision-making and challenge public authorities on environmental issues. But individuals and associations run into too many obstacles when pursuing their rights. Sometimes they are denied the right to be heard by national courts and sometimes litigation costs are prohibitive. Provisions vary widely from country to country, and several Member States are not living up to their obligations under the Convention, and need to adapt their national laws.
A new guidance document sets out to improve Europeans’ access to justice at national level. The initiative, adopted by the European Commission on 28 April, aims to make it simpler for Member States, national courts, lawyers and the public to ensure environmental legislation is fully and fairly implemented, by explaining what the Commission expects at national level, based on current rules. This involves bringing together and summarising the valuable body of case law from the EU Court of Justice.
"Legal certainty is a core principle for a Rule-of-Law-based society, and it is important that we offer this guidance to all interested parties,” said Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. “Environmental law is at the forefront of our efforts to build a sustainable future for the EU, and everybody needs to have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities."
The new guidelines will help to do just that, so that European citizens can hold their authorities to account when they fail to respect rights and obligations under environmental laws.