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Action plan for environmental rights woefully inadequate, say campaigners

Environmental groups say the Scottish Government plan to put environmental justice in place is ‘woefully inadequate’ (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Environmental groups say the Scottish Government plan to put environmental justice in place is ‘woefully inadequate’ (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Campaigners have branded a UK and Scottish Government action plan to deliver on environmental rights as “woefully inadequate”.

An analysis of the submitted action plan outlining the UK’s compliance with the Aarhus Convention, by Friends of the Earth Scotland, The Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS) and RSPB Scotland, found there was a lack of concrete commitments to reform the legal system to help people defend the environment.

The Aarhus Convention ensures everyone has the right to access environmental information held by public bodies.

Groups have now written to a key UN body to express their concern about a lack of concrete commitments to reform the legal system to help people defend the environment.

The Action Plan was requested by the United Nations Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee which has repeatedly found the UK to be in breach of the convention’s access to justice requirements.

A set of recommendations were used and parties to the convention requested the action plan from the UK Government detailing how it will ensure the “allocation of costs in all court procedures” be made fair, equitable and not “prohibitively expensive”.

The Scottish Government is obliged to ensure that Scotland’s legal system is compliant with the convention and contributed to the plan.

Groups say that the measures outlined by the Scottish Government will fail to ensure access to justice by the deadline of October 2024 and are calling for them to make a clear commitment to fully implement the UN’s recommendation by the deadline.

Shivali Fifield, chief officer at ERCS, said: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s acknowledgement that access to justice on environmental matters is prohibitively expensive.

“Yet this is not matched with concrete legal and policy reforms.

“We believe that fundamental changes to the legislative framework are required and the Government must now stop dragging its feet and fully implement the committee’s recommendations.”

Mary Church, Head of Campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “With no concrete commitments to actually reform the system, and make legal action more affordable, this is an action plan in name only.

“As we face the unprecedented challenges of the climate and nature emergency, it’s more important than ever that people act to protect the environment including going to court where necessary, and they should not have to face impossible costs in doing so.

“The Government’s pledge to enshrine the right to a healthy and safe environment in Scots law will be meaningless if it is not possible for individuals, communities and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to enforce these rights in court.

“An overhaul of the courts to remove barriers to public interest litigation, and ensure Aarhus Convention-compliant standards of access to justice for the environment, is long overdue.”

Aedan Smith, Head of Policy & Advocacy at RSPB Scotland, said: “We continue to lose nature in Scotland and around the world and Scotland is already one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries.

“The Scottish Government has taken some welcome steps to improve matters and have committed to reverse biodiversity loss and create a nature-positive world by 2030.

“However, to ensure this commitment becomes more than just warm words it is essential that concerned citizens are not prevented from challenging potential illegality in the courts. The Scottish Government must take urgent action to address this failing.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have contributed to a UK Action Plan to address the gaps in compliance which have been identified in the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee recommendations which, specifically for Scotland, relate to the costs of access to justice on environmental matters.

“We are committed to introducing a new Human Right to a Healthy Environment as part of a Human Rights Bill, which will be a step change in the recognition of environmental rights in Scotland.

“Recommendations made in relation to planning apply across the UK and we are currently considering, along with the four other nations, the options that are available to these.”