Environmentalists laud Chief Justice’s comments on access to justice

Published by Niall Sargent on

September 29th, 2017

Ireland’s leading environmental groups have welcomed the new Chief Justice’s comments on the practical difficulties and barriers around accessing justice in Ireland.

In his first major speech in the role last Tuesday, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, said that he intends to put the issue of access to justice front and centre of his tenure.

The Environment Pillar – a coalition of 26 national environmental organisations – welcomed the speech, stating that it underlines the “urgent need” for Government to speed up its work in adopting “genuine access to justice rules for environmental cases”.

Ireland ratified the Aarhus Convention in 2012, an international agreement to establish a number of rights of the public with regard to the environment, including guaranteed access to justice at a cost which isn’t prohibitive.

However, according to Attracta Uí Bhroin, Facilitator of the Environmental Law Implementation Group, some five years later there remain “significant issues in Ireland’s implementation”.

This often leaves courts often forced to spend time clarifying whether applicants can rely on the Aarhus Convention, Ms Uí Bhroin added, leading to cases often being drawn out over long periods of time.

She said that with current costs in the Irish Superior Courts, the continued uncertainty on costs is “particularly chilling and needs to be urgently remedied”.

The issue of costs is further compounded by gaps in the legislation in relation to standing, she added, even for environmental NGOs who are supposed to be afforded special status under the Convention.

According to Environmental Pillar spokesperson Charles Stanley-Smith, this uncertainty has created a situation in Ireland where access to justice “operates like the Ritz hotel” where “anyone can enter the lobby, but only the wealthy can afford to stay”.

He added: “For too long, the Government’s unreasonable and inappropriate failure to legislate adequately for our obligations under the Convention has left the burden to fall on the Courts and ultimately, the Irish people.”

“The Chief Justice’s comments underline the need for Ireland to fall in line with the Aarhus Convention and ensure that we are fully in compliance with our obligations under international law.”

According to the Government’s latest legislative programme “work is underway” to update our legal provisions to fully comply with the Aarhus Convention.

Ms Uí Bhroin warned that unless the Government takes action fast, it is sending a message to the Irish people that “its commitment to fully implement the Aarhus Convention is nothing but an empty promise”.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London