‘Historic’ High Court decision recognises constitutional right to environmental protection

Published by Niall Sargent on

November 21st, 2017

The High Court today recognised for the first time the constitutional right of Irish people to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens.

The judgement was made today in relation to a challenge brought by Friends of the Irish Environment against a decision to grant the Dublin Airport Authority a five-year extension to a 2007 planning permission for the construction of a third runway at Dublin Airport.

In support of its case, the Cork-based environmental group argued that the Irish constitution granted implicit environmental protections. While dismissing FiE’s challenge, Mr Justice Barrett recognised for the first time a constitutional right to environmental protection “that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens at large”.

In his judgement, Mr Justice Barrett said that such a right “is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights”.

“It is an indispensable existential right that is enjoyed universally, yet which is vested personally as a right that presents and can be seen always to have presented, and to enjoy protection, under Art. 40.3.1 of the Constitution. It is not so utopian a right that it can never be enforced,” the judgement continues.

High Court constitution

The Four Courts Building Photo: Gary Barber

“Concrete duties and responsibilities will fall in time to be defined and demarcated. But to start down that path of definition and demarcation, one first has to recognise that there is a personal constitutional right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens at large and upon which those duties and responsibilities will be constructed. This the court does,” the judgement reads.

A spokesperson for FIE said that the group expects the decision to have “profound implications beyond the scope of this case”. “The state now has a duty to protect the environment in a way that is consistent with this newly established right,” the statement continued.

Fred Logue, who represented FiE, added: “While the decision of the High Court is open to appeal it nevertheless represents a historic judicial recognition of environmental rights in the Irish Constitution.”

The Green Party also “strongly welcomed” the recognition by the High Court, with its leader, Eamon Ryan, TD, describing the move as “historic”. “This is a hugely progressive move, and will aid in future legal cases to hold the Government and State accountable for their responsibilities in environmental protection and tackling climate change,” Mr Ryan said.

Airport Case

FIE argued that Fingal County Council has failed to meet the requirements of Ireland’s climate legislation in extending the permission for the proposed third runway at Dublin Airport.

The Cork-based environmental group have previously said that the Council’s Chief Executive did not adequately consider climate and emissions related criteria before granting the extension in March, as is legally required under the 2015 Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act.

The original permission for the proposed 3.1km runway, granted in 2007, was due to expire this August. Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation grew by 87 per cent between 1990 and 2014.

The challenge was dismissed today on the technical grounds that FIE didn’t have legal standing to bring a challenge under the relevant legislation. According to FIE, the group will now consult with its legal team to consider an appeal in relation to the “narrow points of law on which the case was dismissed”.

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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