Aarhus Convention fosters exchange of knowledge and experience for effective access to justice in environmental matters
Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and air and water pollution are among global environmental challenges that affect everyone. Public rights to timely access to information, especially with regard to environmental impacts and hazards, and to inclusive public participation in environmental decision-making are essential for the effective response to these challenges. Access to justice is a guardian for securing these rights.
At its eleventh meeting last week (Geneva, 27-28 February 2018), the Convention’s Task Force on Access to Justice provided a platform for representatives of States, the judiciary, other independent review bodies, international organizations, international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders from 38 countries in the UNECE region and beyond to discuss practical measures to enable effective access to justice for all.
The meeting focused on access to justice in cases on the right to environmental information. Participants shared different approaches, challenges and lessons learned with regard how to ensure the review procedures in such cases are effective and timely. Speakers highlighted the importance of the independence and impartiality of the review bodies; fast-track procedures and timeliness, including within interim injunctive relief procedures; mediation; proper enforcement of final decisions; the reduction of financial barriers; and access to legal aid to ensure effective access of members of the public to review procedures. The meeting was preceded by a special session for representatives of the judiciary, judicial training institutions and other review bodies organized in close cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme and the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe to promote the protection of the right to environmental information.
In further discussions, the participants took stock of recent developments in legal frameworks, case law and practices in the Parties to the Convention that underlined positive developments but also highlighted existing challenges with regard to standing, the scope of review, timeliness, access to effective remedies, financial barriers and access to legal aid. The participants also learned about the two recent reports by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment — on framework principles on human rights and the environment and on the linkages between children’s rights and the environment — and the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the access to remedy as a possible tool to promote effective access to justice.
In addition, the participants examined different tools to promote effective access to justice, including e-justice initiatives and initiatives promoting capacity-building and cooperation. Addressing the Task Force on the issue of judicial cooperation, Justice Noer from the Supreme Court of Norway, member of the Steering Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Environmental Law, noted “regardless of the role of courts in general, it is obvious that environmental matters are and will be brought before courts and that it is important that judges that deal with these matters have sufficient competence and up-to-date knowledge and understanding of environmental law”.
The Task Force called for further capacity-building and the strengthening of the specialization of judges, prosecutors, attorneys, public interest lawyers and other legal professionals in environmental cases.
Participants also presented several initiatives aimed at monitoring the effectiveness of access to justice in environmental matters and collecting the relevant quantitative data on the practical implementation of article 9 of the Convention (access to justice) and on the environmental dimension of Sustainable Development Goal target 16.3. The Task Force called on Parties and partner organizations to undertake, support and promote similar initiatives.
The next meeting of the Task Force in 2019 will focus on promoting the exchange of information, experiences, challenges and good practice with regard to access to justice in cases relating to air quality.
The outcomes of the Task Force’s work are expected to facilitate removing the existing barriers and to enable effective access to justice for all, which is critical for the successful implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).