Charities need a level playing field when challenging governments and big business
Campaigners have called for urgent reforms which will allow charities to campaign without worrying about incurring crippling legal fees.
They spoke out after environmental group the John Muir Trust was hit by a double-whammy of fines because of its opposition to a controversial windfarm development at Stronelairg in the Highlands.
The charity initially won a review against the giant development in the heart of Monadliath mountains by energy company SSE, but the decision was later overturned by appeal judges.
At this stage, campaigners had to call their legal fight to an end for fear of incurring further damages.
But they were still hit with hefty bills – with the Scottish Government looking to claw £189,000 out of them and, separately, SSE looking for £350,000.
Successful negotiations reduced these bills to £75,000 and £50,000 respectively.
In response, Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, a charity which promotes campaigning, said charities need protection from the prospect of crippling court costs, which could have the effect of staying their hand when it comes to taking action.
She said: “SSE is to be commended for waiving some of the costs, but this case reveals a profound problem: charities acting in the public interest are effectively dependent on the largesse of the powerful they seek to hold to account.
"This can’t be right. What charities, and so the public, need is clear protection from the kind of costs that will prevent them challenging decisions of huge public import.”
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, added: “This case highlights the problems with the cost system that NGOs, communities and individuals face when they try to take legal action in the Scottish courts to defend the public interest.
“A sum even the fraction of what the Court of Session awarded against the John Muir Trust would be enough to put most people off standing up for their community and the environment in court, and it would be of great concern if this case caused a chilling effect for others considering legal action.
“There are rules in place to protect against costs like this, but clearly the system fell down in this instance. We urge the Scottish Civil Justice Council to look closely at this case as it consults on amending the costs system public interest environmental cases."
The John Muir Trust described the outcome of the payment negotiations as a “positive outcome” and said it is “grateful to the many supporters of our Stronelairg campaign, who have enabled us to meet all of the legal costs from our existing campaign funds.”
A spokesperson added: “We believe that the planning regime in Scotland remains weighted in favour of developers with huge financial resources at their disposal.
“We are now working with others to campaign for a level playing field – calling for an equal right of appeal for organisations like ours and the public.”
SSE said the cash will go towards the Visit Inverness South Loch Ness trail project, which will complete a walking and cycling track round the whole of the loch.
A spokesman said: "We're pleased to reach a reasonable conclusion with the trust.
"We are also happy to be able to gift those funds to the excellent South Loch Ness trail project."
The Scottish Government said it has a “responsibility to consider the interests of taxpayers, in relation to costs incurred in legal actions.”