Access to environmental justice is increasingly important  for the protection of the environment. On the eve of COP 26, the forthcoming climate change meeting due to be held in Glasgow in November 2021, environmental information will be key. Whatever is achieved at COP 26, it will heighten the awareness for increased vigilance to protect the environment, based on sound information that can challenge institutions and public authorities. Many institutions make decisions that affect the environment and their accountability is paramount. Access to information is key in underpinning that accountability to that aim. Many individuals and pressure groups (NGOs) will want to know more about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemicals that may affect us and the food that we all consume. Information is key.
Viewed from the perspective of NGOs such as Client Earth, access to the courts is a critical element in helping to enforce environmental rights. One of the important means to access environmental information is to be found in the international agreement, known as the Aarhus Convention (formerly signed in 1998 and ratified by 47 parties including the UK). The Arhus convention also connects with the European Convention on Human Rights, and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and taken together they provide access to information. The European Union approved the Aarhus Convention, but in 2006 it adopted an EU Access to Justice Law named the Aarhus Regulation with an ‘internal review mechanism’ inviting EU institutions to reconsider their own decisions, allowing recourse to the courts, if they failed to do so. The reforms introduced on the 5th and 6th October (2021), allow individuals for the first time to access the internal review procedure, although subject to some tough conditions. This has great potential for access to environmental information. However, some words of caution, Client Earth have concluded that ‘at least it will be much easier for environmental NGOs to bring cases before the Court of Justice’. It will largely depend on what the Court decides is required. This does not mean any immediate change in transparency requirements – it will be for the Court to undertake an intensive review of decisions before deciding whether to grant remedies. It may be concluded that changes in the Aarhus Convention have potential to bring increased judicial oversight over the environment and a corresponding heightened public awareness about the global environment.
It will remain to be seen what the UK will do in addressing the recent Aarhus reforms, given that it has left the EU. It has every reason to take a lead and follow the EU reforms and perhaps extend them further. The signs are not optimistic. As far back as 2010, the Aarhus Convention compliance committee noted that the UK was in breach of its obligations under the Convention. At the centre of the dispute is access to justice and the requirement that independent legal review procedures should not be ‘prohibitively expensive’. This matter remains unresolved. There are many technical skirmishes between NGOs and the Ministry of Justice on how to interpret and implement the Aarhus Convention in practical cases. One example, in February 2017, Client Earth, Friends of the Earth and RSPB took the Ministry of Justice to court after it modified the fixed costs of no more than £10,000 to a variable cap with no limit. The High Court held that costs should be considered at the permission stage of judicial review, thus claimants will know what costs they may expect if the case is taken forward, including the claimant’s own fees. This decision will help claimants know where they stand before judicial review is taken. The Civil Procedure Rules were adapted accordingly. The UK is expected to produce a plan to align itself with the Aarhus Convention, as there are apparently non-compliance issues including excessive barriers such as costs and inconsistencies that are said to deter access to environmental information, not helped by the challenges of Brexit and various changes to the planning system. There is likely to be an ongoing debate about how best to make the Aarhus Convention more effective for EU countries as well as the UK in the forthcoming debates about addressing climate change. The UK has received an agreement to delay decisions about compliance until 2025. It will be fascinating to see what the outcome will be at that time.