In November 2016, the Government responded in rather disappointing terms (here) to a consultation about amending its costs rules in civil cases to reflect the requirements of the Aarhus Convention.
Article 9 of this Convention says that members of the public should be able to challenge environmental decisions, and the procedures for doing so shall be adequate and effective and “not prohibitively expensive“. Aarhus starters may want to have a look at my bluffers guide to Aarhus – here.
First, the limited bit of good news in the governmental response.
Many readers will know that I have banged on, long and hard, via this blog about the constant problem we have in the UK trying to ensure that the cost of planning and environmental litigation is not prohibitively expensive for ordinary people. The UK system has been held repeatedly to be in breach of Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention, which says that members of the public should be able to challenge environmental decisions, and the procedures for doing so shall be adequate and effective and “not prohibitively expensive”. For Aarhus beginners, have a look at my bluffers guide – here
So I was delighted to be asked recently to chair the Environmental Law Foundation whose main role is to help out people, for free, with their planning and environmental problems. ELF is going to have its 25th birthday next year, and this short post is an unashamed plug for the job that it does – together with an invitation to contact it (see below) if you have a problem you think they may be able to help with, or if you want to volunteer to assist on someone else’s problem.
R (o.t.a. Dilner) v. Sheffield City Council  EWHC 945 (Admin), Gilbart J, 27 April 2016, read judgment
A quick note on the latest Aarhus Convention point to come before the domestic courts.
In November 2015, I posted on the decision by Ouseley J in McMorn here that a gamekeeper’s challenge fell within the scope of Aarhus, and that as a result there should be a more intense scrutiny of the underlying merits of the claim than would typically be allowed under domestic public law principles.
The current case bears on the standard of review point. Mr Dilner and other environmental campaigners challenged the tree-felling policies of Sheffield City Council, and one of his arguments was that tree-felling required an environmental assessment under the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. This environmental claim fell within the protections conferred by the Aarhus Convention, and hence, it was said, required such an intense scrutiny. Mr Dilner relied upon Ouseley J’s reasoning.
Gilbart J robustly rejected the argument, and did not follow Ouseley J’s ruling.
McMorn (R, on the application of) v Natural England  EWHC 3297 (Admin) – read judgment
An interesting point arose in this judicial review (for which see Rosalind English’s post here). Could the claimant could get the benefit of an order that any costs he might have had to pay were capped at £5,000? The original judge, Thirlwall J, when granting permission, had refused this costs protection. Ouseley J granted it, though, because the claimant won, the order is academic (short of a successful appeal by the defendant).
This kind of costs protection only applies when the claim is an environmental claim covered by the Aarhus Convention: see a whole list of posts at the end of this one, including the true bluffer’s guide here. The UK has been dragged kicking and screaming into compliance with the Aarhus costs requirements, that environmental challenges not be “prohibitively expensive”, thanks to a combination of the Convention’s own enforcement body and the EU Court in Luxembourg.
But the domestic courts have had some difficulty in deciding what is or is not comes within an environmental challenge.
As we will see, the judge also thought that an Aarhus claim requires a more intensive review of the substantive decision than might have been applied had the claim been a typical domestic challenge on grounds of irrationality. I deal with that point first.
Coventry v. Lawrence  UKSC 50, 22 July 2015, read judgment here
The pre-April 2013 Conditional Fee Agreement system, under which claimants could recover uplifts on their costs and their insurance premiums from defendants, has survived – just. It received a sustained challenge from defendants to the effect that such a system was in breach of their Article 6 rights to a fair trial.
In a seven-justice court there was a strongly-worded dissent of two, and two other justices found the case “awkward.”
The decision arises out of the noisy speedway case about which I posted in March 2014 – here. The speedway business ended up being ordered to pay £640,000 by way of costs after the trial. On an initial hearing (my post here), the Supreme Court was so disturbed by this that they ordered a further hearing to decide whether this was compatible with Article 6 .
Fish Legal v Information Commissioner and others (Information rights practice and procedure)  UKUT 52 (AAC) Charles J – read judgment
Water and sewage utility companies are “public authorities” for the purposes of the environmental information regulations, and are bound by them accordingly, the Administrative Appeals Chamber of the Upper Tribunal has ruled.
Fish Legal is the legal arm of the Angling Trust. In 2009 it asked United Utilities Water plc and Yorkshire Water Services Ltd for information relating to discharges, clean-up operations, and emergency overflow. Emily Shirley is a private individual. Again, she asked Southern Water Services Ltd for information relating to sewerage capacity for a planning proposal in her village. All three companies denied that they were under a duty to provide the information under Environmental Information Regulations. Both Fish Legal and Mrs Shirley complained to the Commissioner. In 2010 the Commissioner replied, explaining that as the companies were not public authorities for the purposes of EIR, he had no power to adjudicate the complaints. Continue reading
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government v. Venn, Court of Appeal, 27 November 2014 – read judgment
Back to Aarhus and the constant problem we have in the UK making sure that the cost of planning and environmental litigation is not prohibitively expensive.
Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention (to which the EU has subscribed) says that members of the public should be able to challenge environmental decisions, and the procedures for doing so shall be adequate and effective and “not prohibitively expensive”. If this means nothing to you, you might want to limber up with my bluffers guide to Aarhus – here -not least on how to pronounce it and how it fits into domestic law.
Ms Venn wanted to stop the owner of land next door to her London property “garden-grabbing”, namely building another dwelling in his garden. The local authority had refused permission, the landowner successfully appealed to a planning inspector, and on further review, Ms Venn said that the inspector had failed to have regard to emerging planning policy in determining the appeal against her.
Lang J gave Ms Venn a protective costs order (PCO), limiting her costs exposure to £3,500 if she lost. The CA reversed this. As ever, the devil is in the detail. Had her appeal been by way of judicial review, she would have got an order in her favour. So why didn’t she?