Press release: 22 October 2021

UK breaching international environmental rights law, UN announces

The UN has confirmed that the UK is failing to allow people to stand up and defend the environment effectively in court, putting it in non-compliance of the Aarhus Convention – a key international access to justice law.

With COP26 taking place in a matter of weeks, ClientEarth lawyers say this seriously calls into question the UK’s commitment to environmental democracy and its self-positioning as a climate leader.

The Aarhus Convention is an international treaty which should guarantee members of the public rights to access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice – all regarding environmental matters.

More than 15 years on from ratifying the Convention, the UK has failed to bring its legal systems into compliance. This severely curtails the ability for individuals and charities to defend the public’s right to a healthy environment.

“Amid the current climate and biodiversity crises, it is more important than ever for the public to be able to exercise their environmental rights – whether that be requesting information from the government or challenging them in court when they make unlawful decisions,” said ClientEarth Senior Lawyer Gillian Lobo.

“The UK has legally binding climate requirements and has set out to be a world-leader on the environment. If the public can’t challenge the lawfulness of environmental decisions, the Government is not serious about holding itself to a high standard.”

Current proposals on access to justice going quietly through the Westminster Parliament are likely to shift the dial further in the wrong direction in England and Wales.

Judicial review is a key process in the UK which allows people to bring court challenges against decisions by public bodies. But the Government is planning on weakening the right that the public has to seek an effective solution after a finding of unlawfulness.

This means that even if a court finds that a Government decision is unlawful, it may have to allow the decision in that case to stand, even if this may cause irreparable harm to the environment.

If unlawful decisions are allowed to stand, it erodes the rule of law and puts people in a position where they are unable to defend their rights. It also flies in the face of the UK’s legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and Aarhus Convention to provide an effective remedy.

“Empowering individuals and civil society to challenge government decisions and affect change is a hallmark of the democratic process. This is all the more important when people bring claims in the public interest to protect the environment,” said Lobo.

“The UK should be taking all necessary steps to comply with the treaty it has ratified on access to justice, not make its position worse. We should be able to expect the Government to respect the rule of law and fulfil its international commitments, instead of blatantly undermining them.”


Notes to editors:
  • The UN decision found that the UK is not compliant with the Aarhus Convention because it has failed ensure that the costs of bringing an environmental court case in the UK are fair and equitable and not prohibitively expensive. This is because high legal costs deter the public from bringing environmental claims in the public interest.
  • ClientEarth is one of the communicants in the case before the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee where it found that the UK’s court costs were prohibitively expensive.
  • ClientEarth, with RSPB and FoE, brought a successful challenge to the lawfulness of variable Aarhus Convention costs caps in England & Wales.
  • Clause 1 of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill includes a provision that weakens the ability for an effective remedy to be granted after a finding of Government unlawfulness.
  • ClientEarth has used the judicial review process to protect people’s right to clean air, bringing three successful court challenges over the Government’s failure to bring air pollution levels within legal limits.
  • The UN Human Rights Committee voted this month to officially recognise the human right to a clean and healthy 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.