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New government rules on environmental cases “move financial goalposts”, court hears

The Secretary of State for Justice faced conservation and environmental groups in the High Court yesterday after the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth challenged new rules that make it harder for people and charities to bring legal cases to protect the environment.

The legal challenge is due to the new rules failing to provide people with early certainty of their court costs. These costs can be changed at any stage in the proceedings, meaning it is impossible to know how much a case will cost from the start.

In court, representing the three organisations, David Wolfe QC, said the new rules meant the financial goalposts could be moved part way through a legal challenge.

Following a court hearing before Mr Justice Dove, the campaigners said: “By increasing uncertainty around costs and making the procedure more complex, the government’s new rules make it even harder for people to bring environmental cases. They will have a chilling effect on cases brought to protect people and the environment.

“This serious threat to access to justice has brought our three organisations together to speak with one voice on this issue.”

The UK government must ensure environmental cases are not prohibitively expensive and they must remove or reduce financial and other barriers to access to justice.

The charities argued in court that the rules do not follow the spirit of the Aarhus Convention – a UN agreement which is designed to ensure access to justice for environmental cases.

As well as being uncertain, the new rules introduced in February mean individual claimants have to expose personal financial information in a public hearing, which the three charities argued would have a chilling effect on people bringing cases to protect our environment.

Last week the government published the ‘Repeal Bill’ to parliament, outlining how the UK plans to leave the EU. The government has said that environmental protections will be enforced by judicial review once we leave the Union. This means that the quality of our air, countryside, nature and wildlife will rely upon the courts. If people and charities are hindered by uncertain court costs, our environment could be at real risk post Brexit.

Mr Justice Dove reserved judgement. The case continues.

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Kyle Myburgh

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