Costs too high for environmental justice, report finds

A new report published this week claims that the UK civil justice system effectively prevents people concerned about the environment from going to court and that the criminal justice system fails to provide effective deterrents to environmental and wildlife crime.

Over 50 respondents including 18 solicitors, 20 barristers and 15 NGOs were interviewed. A staggering 97% of those do not think the civil law system delivers environmental justice.

The report, Environmental Justice, published by WWF, Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) and Leigh Day & Co, as part of the Environmental Justice Project (EJP) found the most significant barrier to bringing a civil case is the cost of legal action. In England and Wales, the rules dictate that the losing party has to pay not only its own costs, but those of the winning side too.

"Simply put, people cannot afford to take legal action to protect the environment," said Martin Day of Leigh Day & Co Solicitors. "Surely it cannot be right that people are exposed to such risk when they are seeking to protect the environment for the public good."

The EJP is calling upon the government to establish a separate environmental court or tribunal, served by specialist judges in which each side would pay their own costs. Establishing such a court would require new primary legislation and the EJP is calling upon the government to include a commitment to this in its next election manifesto.

Environmental Justice also looked at whether the criminal justice system provides a fair platform for environmental issues, and the extent to which the penalties imposed provide an effective deterrent to environmental and wildlife crime. It found that environmental offences will continue if the judiciary hands down little more than petty fines, and routinely reduces fines on appeal, as it is then in the interests of large corporations to go on polluting.

The EJP recommends that the judiciary be tougher and more inventive by increasing fines and using a wider range of sentencing options. The report also urges the regulatory bodies to control the appointment of company directors, disqualifying those who do not meet environmental standards.

By David Hopkins



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