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Green charities slam government’s environmental rights action plan

This news post is almost 2 years old

Campaigners have now written to a UN body to express their concerns. 

Environmental charities have branded a UK and Scottish Government Action Plan to deliver on environmental rights “woefully inadequate”. 

The Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS), Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES) and RSPB Scotland have written to a key UN body to express their concern about a lack of concrete commitments to reform the legal system to help people defend the environment.

The Action Plan was requested by the United Nations Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee which has repeatedly found the UK to be in breach of the convention’s access to justice requirements.

In October 2021 the Meeting of Parties to the convention made a set of recommendations and requested an Action Plan from the UK Government detailing how it will, “as a matter of urgency…ensure that the allocation of costs in all court procedures subject to Article 9 [which deals with access to justice] be made fair, equitable and not prohibitively expensive”. 

The Scottish Government is obliged to ensure that Scotland's legal system is compliant with the convention and contributed to this plan.

The charities’ analysis of the submitted action plan reveals that the measures outlined by the Scottish Government will fail to ensure access to justice by the deadline of October 2024.

Shivali Fifield, chief officer at ERCS, said: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s acknowledgement that access to justice on environmental matters is prohibitively expensive. Yet this is not matched with concrete legal and policy reforms. 

“We believe that fundamental changes to the legislative framework are required and the government must now stop dragging its feet and fully implement the Committee’s recommendations."

Environmental campaigners are now calling for the Scottish Government to make a clear commitment to fully implement the UN's recommendations by the deadline.

Mary Church, head of campaigns at FoES, said: "This is a woefully inadequate response to a decade of rulings that the Scottish Government is in breach of international law for its failure to ensure access to justice for the environment. 

“With no concrete commitments to actually reform the system and make legal action more affordable this is an action plan in name only.

"As we face the unprecedented challenges of the climate and nature emergency, it’s more important than ever that people act to protect the environment including going to court where necessary, and they should not have to face impossible costs in doing so. 

“The Government’s pledge to enshrine the right to a healthy and safe environment in Scots law will be meaningless if it is not possible for individuals, communities and NGOs to enforce these rights in court. 

“An overhaul of the courts to remove barriers to public interest litigation, and ensure Aarhus Convention-compliant standards of access to justice for the environment, is long overdue."

Aedán Smith, head of policy and advocacy at RSPB Scotland, added: "We continue to lose nature in Scotland and around the world and Scotland is already one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. 

“The Scottish Government has taken some welcome steps to improve matters and have committed to reverse biodiversity loss and create a 'nature-positive' world by 2030. However, to ensure this commitment becomes more than just warm words it is essential that concerned citizens are not prevented from challenging potential illegality in the courts. 

“The Scottish Government must take urgent action to address this failing."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have contributed to a UK Action Plan to address the gaps in compliance which have been identified by the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee recommendations which, specifically for Scotland, relate to the costs of access to justice on environmental matters.

“We are committed to introducing a new Human Right to a Healthy Environment as part of a Human Rights Bill, which will be a step change in the recognition of environmental rights in Scotland.

“Recommendations made in relation to planning apply across the UK and we are currently considering, along with the four other nations, the options that are available to these.”

The UK Government was approached for comment.