Press release: 13 July 2021

EU pulls down barriers for public to challenge environmental wrongdoing in court

The EU institutions have agreed to open the way for the public to challenge environmental wrongdoings in EU courts. The deal, struck between the Parliament and the Council on Monday night, is the latest development of a decade-long legal battle by environmental lawyers for access to justice for the public.

Under the new deal, set to amend EU access to justice law the Aarhus Regulation, many more EU decisions that break environmental law could now be subject to challenge by NGOs and members of the public. Until now, only NGOs could use the Aarhus Regulation to challenge EU decisions – and even then, only those concerning individual companies.

Negotiators have agreed to remove these restrictions, allowing individuals, as well as NGOs, to challenge a wide range of EU decisions, including those that require national implementing measures, like authorisations for harmful pesticides.

ClientEarth environmental democracy lawyer Anne Friel said: “The EU has finally decided to lift the main obstacles preventing people and NGOs from challenging unlawful EU decisions that affect people’s health and the environment. This is crucial to empower people and civil society to enforce environmental laws and ensure EU decisions do not contradict the EU Green Deal.”

The development follows a decade-long legal battle for more access to justice at EU level.  In 2008, ClientEarth filed a complaint with the UN against the EU for its failure to comply with the Aarhus Convention, an international environmental treaty that grants access to justice rights to the public. In 2017, the UN body responsible for overseeing compliance with the Convention found the EU to be in breach of its international law obligations.

This reform addresses the main findings of non-compliance of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in that case and will hopefully bring this legal battle to its conclusion. This will be decided by the Parties to the Aarhus Convention when they gather at the upcoming Meeting of the Parties in October 2021.

Friel added: “Respect for international law is the hallmark of a commitment to the rule of law at large and the EU is no exception. We are very pleased that the EU institutions have finally decided to allow the public to access EU courts in line with international law.

“The EU makes big promises on environmental protection and democratic accountability. It must lead by example.”

Lawyers regret however that the EU did not seize this opportunity to ensure that EU State aid decisions can be challenged under the Aarhus Regulation, in line with more recent findings of the Aarhus Compliance Committee.

Friel added “The EU must stop subsidizing the economic activities that contribute most to the climate and biodiversity crises we are facing. Allowing the public to challenge State aid authorisations that break environmental law is vital to this fight”.

The Commission has committed to study the implications of those findings and to bring forward the measures necessary to address them by the end of 2023, if appropriate.


Notes to editors:

The Aarhus Convention is an international treaty created to ensure people and civil society have access to justice in environmental matters.

Following a legal challenge by ClientEarth, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) found in 2017 that the EU was breaching the Convention by failing to provide sufficient means to challenge environmental law-breaking in EU courts.

This political deal, reached on Monday night after a round of trilogue negotiations, is the latest step of a reform process started in 2020 to bring the EU into compliance with the Convention.

Read about the EU’s pathway to access to justice: A 20-year journey towards access to justice – timeline

Read ClientEarth’s commentary on the EU’s reform of the Aarhus Regulation: It’s time to unlock EU courts so we can better protect the environment

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.