Securing access to environmental justice - Trust speaks at conference

Edinburgh event explores landscape of environmental justice, problems with the current approach and where future change could be directed

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At a recent conference on Securing Access to Environmental Justice, co-hosted by Holyrood conferences and the University of Edinburgh's Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, Helen McDade spoke about the Trust’s experience of attempting to gain a Protective Expenses Order in the Stronelairg legal case.

The speakers ranged from representatives of communities and spokespeople for environmental charities to academic and legal experts. The talks gave a comprehensive overview of the subject.

Professor Kevin Dunion, ex Freedom of Information (FOI) Commissioner, talked about the origin of environmental justice as a concept in the US when it was recognised that poorer communities suffered much more environmental pollution and degradation than richer communities. He explained that FOI legislation allowed the public access to environmental information. Other speakers explained that the United Nations Aarhus Convention on Environmental Justice has three “Pillars”, or strands:-

  • access to information: any citizen should have the right to get a wide and easy access to environmental information
  • public participation in decision making: the public must be informed over all the relevant projects and it has to have the chance to participate during the decision-making and legislative process
  • access to justice: the public has the right to judicial or administrative recourse procedures in case a Party violates or fails to adhere to environmental law and the convention's principles

Professor Kenneth Ross, convenor of the Law Society of Scotland’s Environmental Law Committee, referred to the Society’s response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on environmental justice. This highlighted concerns that the consultation was too narrow in its scope and didn’t embrace the range of ways in which environmental justice can be sought. This was a general concern in the conference.

For the Trust, Helen highlighted the gap between the principle of the public being able to take action to protect the environment, which is well accepted by authorities, and the huge problems in taking that action. The overarching problem she referred to was the lack of a non-legal way to challenge the quality of a planning decisions, such as an Equal Right of Appeal, and the huge costs of taking legal action, by Judicial Review. There was considerable interest from participants in the Trust’s example which seemed to demonstrate considerable difference between theory and practice.  

There was agreement amongst participants that the range of interests at the conference could lead to further work on bringing the Aarhus Convention principles into Scottish practice.