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ClientEarth Communications

20th May 2021

Access to Justice
Rule of law
European Green Deal

A 20-year journey towards access to justice - timeline

More than 20 years ago, the EU and more than 40 parties signed an international treaty on environmental democracy known as the Aarhus Convention. The Convention establishes a number of rights of the public (individuals and their associations) with regard to the environment. One of them is the right to challenge violations of environmental law in court – or access to justice.

But this essential democratic right is often overlooked, including at the very heart of the European Union. In fact, the EU is currently breaking international law by failing to provide access to its courts.

As the EU is currently revising its main access to justice law, known as the Aarhus Regulation, the timeline below provides an overview of our battle to enforce this right.

  • 1998: The EU and more than 40 other parties sign the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, usually known as the Aarhus Convention.
  • 2005: The Convention is ratified by the EU.
  • 2006: The EU adopts the Aarhus Regulation to implement the access to justice provisions of the Aarhus Convention (article 9(3)) into EU law. Since individuals and NGOs do not have direct access to the Court of Justice of the EU to protect the environment, the Aarhus Regulation creates an ‘internal review’ mechanism allowing certain environmental NGOs to ask EU institutions to review their own decisions, with a right of appeal to the EU courts. The current internal review mechanism does not work because it is available for a very limited number of EU acts only (so far, certain chemicals and GMO decisions).
  • 2008: ClientEarth brings this matter before the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC)
  • 2017: the ACCC finds the EU to be in violation of the access to justice provisions of the Convention. The EU refuses to endorse the findings of the Committee, leading to strong opposition from certain State Parties, NGOs and other institutional actors.
  • 2018: The Council of the EU requests the Commission to carry out a study to explore ways to comply with the Convention and the findings of the ACCC and, in view of the conclusion of the study, to table a legislative proposal to revise the Aarhus Regulation.
  • October 2019: the Commission published the study(carried out by consultants) and a report, concluding that the only option was to amend the Aarhus Regulation (see our analysis here).
  • October 2020: the Commission releases a legislative proposal to amend the Aarhus regulation (see our analysis here) and asks the ACCC to issue advice on whether it would bring the EU into compliance with the Convention
  • November 2020: The ACCC holds a hearing with the European Commission and the communicant (ClientEarth) in preparation of its advice to the EU as to whether the legislative proposal is adequate to bring the EU into compliance with the Convention
  • December 2020: Rather than awaiting the ACCC advice, the Council adopts a common position on the legislative proposal (see our press release here)
  • February 2021: The ACCC adopted its advice stating that the legislative proposal, in its current form, is insufficient to ensure the EU’s compliance with the Convention. In parallel, it publishes its draft findings on communication ACCC/C/2015/128 (European Union) finding that the EU needs to ensure access to justice for the EU Commission’s state aid decisions.
  • March 2021: The ACCC publishes its final findings on communication ACCC/C/2015/128 and confirms that access to justice in relation to the Commission’s state aid decisions must be ensured.
  • April 2021: the European Parliament Environment committee adopts its position on the legislative proposal and takes the EU closer to compliance with the Aarhus Convention.
  • May 2021: Members of the European Parliament agree in plenary session to lift main barriers to challenge environmental wrongdoings in EU courts.
  • July 2021: The three main EU institutions reach a deal enabling NGOs and individuals to challenge many more EU environmental decisions before EU courts.
  • October 2021: the European Parliament rubberstamps this agreement, in a big win for ClientEarth and all environmental defenders.