Poland’s breach of nature laws shows importance of access to justice for environment

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Last month, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against the Polish government for breaching nature protection laws.

Recent changes to Polish law allow exemptions from forest management assessments, which test whether new forest activities will put nature and habitats at risk. These tests are required under EU law.

The Commission also found that Polish law does not provide proper access to justice in relation to forest management plans. The public has a right to access environmental information, participate in decision-making and challenge decisions that break environmental law. Limited and inadequate access to environmental justice is a well-known challenge for Polish charities and non-profit organisations (NGOs).

When the government tripled logging in the Białowieża Forest, NGOs didn’t have legal standing to bring a case against this illegal action. ClientEarth alongside the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights challenged these controversial forest plans but, without proper access to legal processes, the complaint was dismissed by the Regional and Supreme Administrative Court.

Under Polish law, there is no possibility for people and organisations to challenge such decisions in Polish courts. This violates the Aarhus Convention, which sets out rules that members of the public should be able to challenge decisions in breach of provisions relating to the environment.

Without access to domestic courts, ClientEarth and other NGOs submitted a complaint to the European Commission, which opened the infringement case resulting in a ruling from the Court of Justice of the EU that logging was Białowieża is illegal. This is welcome, but this should have come much sooner, before the matter reached Polish national courts.

Access to justice is crucial to ensure the correct implementation of environmental legislation. The Court of Justice of the EU has recently adopted rulings upholding these rights notably in the context of nature laws.

But members of the public still lack the essential means to access legal processes, not just on forestry plans in Poland but in countless other environmental decisions across the EU too.

With the Commission highlighting this problem alongside breaches of nature protection laws in Poland, the growing importance of environmental democracy in Europe needs to be addressed.

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