Brussels -- The European Commission has launched a public consultation on ways to improve access to justice in the field of the environment. Access to justice – the right to challenge decisions or omissions by public bodies that are suspected of not complying with environmental law – is an international obligation under a UN Convention ratified by the EU in 2005.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: 'It is very important that citizens and NGOs are able to play an active role in defending the environment. In the words of Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston: 'the fish cannot go to court''
Although EU legislation covers many areas related to access to justice, there are gaps which are only filled by case law. Stakeholders are concerned by the legal uncertainty that they currently face and both the Council and Parliament have called for action to improve access to environmental justice. This consultation asks for views on what action at EU level might be needed to complement or clarify existing legislation, to ensure fair and effective access to national courts in environmental matters.
The consultation covers three broad areas:
- Perceptions of the importance of ensuring effective and efficient access to environmental justice in Member States
- Options for ensuring effective and efficient access to justice in environmental matters
- Elements on which action at EU level is possible
The Court of Justice has confirmed in several cases the importance of providing effective access to justice, notably by giving members of the public and associations an active role in defending the environment.
Access to justice could be improved in two ways – through non-legislative means such as guidance documents, or through binding EU legislation. The purpose of the consultation is to canvass views on these options and related topics.
The consultation is open until 23 September 2013. The Commission will then analyse the results and decide on the possible next steps.
Access to justice in environmental matters is an international obligation stemming from the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters ratified by the EU in 2005. It is also a general principle of EU law confirmed by the Court of Justice of the EU.
The Commission previously proposed legislation on environmental access to justice in 2003 to cover areas like legal standing (i.e. who has the right to bring cases concerning the environment before courts), but this has not progressed in discussions with the Council and Parliament. The policy and political context is now one in which the Council and Parliament as well as the Committee of the Regions seek improvements in relation to access to justice in Member States. This is reflected in the discussions on the proposed 7th Environmental Action Programme.