THE Scottish Government have killed off hopes for an environmental court blaming the uncertainty over Brexit for the decision.
But they have been savaged by green groups who say it leaves Scotland weak and ties organisations up in red tape.
In the conclusions of a consultation on the idea published today, ministers confirmed the idea was dead.
They said: “The Scottish Government has considered the issue carefully and is fully mindful of the views of the respondents to the consultation.
“The variety of views on what sort of cases an environmental court or tribunal should hear combined with the uncertainty of the environmental justice landscape caused by Brexit lead Ministers to the view that it is not appropriate to set up an specialised environmental court or tribunal at present.
“The Government will, however, remain committed to environmental justice and will keep the issue of whether there should be an environmental court or tribunal or even a review of environmental justice under review.”
That, though, led to a furious backlash, with accusations of the commitment having been ‘half-hearted’ and leaving up barriers.
Friends of the Earth Scotland Head of Campaigns Mary Church said: “This is yet another missed opportunity by the Scottish Government to bring the Scottish legal system into the 21st century on environmental rights.
“By closing the door on a specialist environmental court or tribunal the Scottish Government demonstrates it is in continued denial of the critical important of environmental law, and the environmental rights established in international law.
“In a half-hearted consultation last year, the Scottish Government asked whether a specialist environmental court should be set up.
“It has now chosen to ignore the vast majority of stakeholders who adamantly said yes, and who criticised the narrow approach to environmental justice taken by the Government to date. “
She said it left communities vulnerable and would make it difficult for authorities to take action against offenders.
And she said: “Currently, if communities try to challenge damaging developments they face huge costs and significant barriers to do so.
“For too long taking legal action to protect the environment in Scotland has been a luxury that effectively only the time and money rich can afford, while the chances of getting a ruling from the Scottish court system that actually fixes the harm is slim.
“Specialist environmental courts can reduce the cost of legal action for communities, developers and the public purse, level the playing field and speed up decision making.
“With huge issues like climate change at stake, environmental law is increasingly complex, and clearly requires a special forum.
“There are over a thousand environmental courts and tribunals worldwide, and the decisions of these courts tend result in better outcomes for the environment and stakeholders.”
The numbers of wildlife and environmental crime cases prosecuted in the courts is relatively small compared to crimes such as theft or drug offences. It is not considered that the number of wildlife or environmental crime cases would sustain a specialist criminal environmental court or tribunal – The Scottish Government
FOE Scotland said the Scottish Government has recently come under fire from the UN Aarhus Compliance Committee for its failure to tackle high costs and other barriers to taking legal action to protect the environment.
And they said an environmental court or tribunal could go some way to addressing these issues.
Church added: “Almost 20 years after the Aarhus Convention enshrined key environmental rights in international law the Scottish Government has abjectly failed to ensure that some of its most important provisions are incorporated into Scots Law.
“The Compliance Committee has ruled against Scotland three times for failing to ensure access to justice is fair, equitable and affordable for people and communities trying to protect the environment, and demonstrates the lack of regard the Scottish Government has for environmental rights.”
Mark Ruskell MSP, the Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson, said the decision was “unacceptable”.
He added: “We’re leaving the EU and losing environmental protections left, right and centre, including from the European courts which recently forced the UK and Scottish governments to finally take action on illegal air pollution.
“The SNP said Scotland would maintain environmental standards post-Brexit, but have today ruled out an environmental court to replace the protections we’ll be losing from Europe.
“That’s unacceptable. If there is no legal backstop governments can get away with inaction that costs lives.”
He added: “Without the threat of the European Court of Justice there would have been no new announcements from the UK or Scottish Government on air quality measures.”
In its conclusions, the Scottish Government stated: “… the Scottish Government does not consider it appropriate to set up an specialised environmental court or tribunal at present.”
“This should not be read as a downgrading of the importance to the Government of environmental justice. It is committed to improving access to justice in this field as elsewhere in the justice system and will keep the issue of whether there should be an environmental court or tribunal or even a review of environmental justice under review.”
Want to learn more? Read: Scottish Government – Developments in environmental justice in Scotland
Image credit: cc Jessica45