The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (‘UNECE’) has today published the findings of a international committee that concludes that the UK is in breach of its obligations to provide affordable access to justice for the victims of environmental blight and pollution.
The UK government has also been urged to implement changes to the system of funding for certain legal claims relating to the environment and faces the threat of further legal action if it fails to do so.
The findings published by the UNECE come about as a result of a joint complaint made by the Environmental Law Foundation represented by Hugh James and an individual called Alyson Austin represented by Richard Buxton Solicitors.
The complaint was considered by the the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee at a hearing in Geneva in March 2014 but the findings have only now been published due to delays resulting from legal technicalities.
The Aarhus Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, provides protection for the rights of individuals to access to justice in environmental matters.
At the hearing the complainants argued that the government’s reforms to the no win, no fee system of funding legal claims, brought in as a result of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’), resulted in environmental claims for blight and nuisance becoming prohibitively expensive for individuals in breach of the Aarhus Convention
The principle point made by the Environmental Law Foundation and Mrs Austin was that that when the reforms were brought in, claimants with environmental claims relating to nuisance and blight should have been given the same protection as claimants in personal injury cases. who do not face the risk of ruinous legal costs if their claims are unsuccessful (unless it is shown that the claim is fraudulent or fundamentally dishonest).
‘we will be inviting the Ministry of Justice and DEFRA to meet to discuss these findings. It remains to be seen what approach the government will take to environmental rights post Brexit. Careful consideration does however need to be given to ensuring that we uphold the rights enshrined in UK law to protect people from environment blight.’