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Scotland's legal system breaking international environmental and human rights, UN warns

The United Nation's Economic Commission for Europe says Scotland has repeatedly been found in breach of the law because of the high cost of taking legal action

SCOTLAND’S legal system is breaking international environmental and human rights law due to the extremely high costs of legal action, the UN’s  Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) confirmed today.

The decision of the UNECE’s Aarhus Meeting of the Parties confirmed a lack of progress in meeting the requirements of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees everyone in Scotland the right to go to court or an independent body to defend the environment.

The decision will call for reform as a matter of urgency with a plan of action, including a time schedule to be submitted to it by 2022. 

Scotland’s legal system has repeatedly been found in breach of the convention because of the high cost of taking legal action, with judicial reviews often running into the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The decision follows the Scottish government’s commitment to introduce human rights laws, including an enforceable right to a healthy and safe environment.

Campaigners are now calling for urgent reforms which will allow individuals, communities and charities to go to court to protect the environment, including the establishment of an environmental court for Scotland. 

Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland advocacy officer Emilia Hanna said: “With Cop26 around the corner and the global spotlight on Scotland, this UN body has said action must now be taken as a matter of urgency.

“We call for judicial expenses to be urgently reduced. We also call for the establishment of an environmental court in Scotland to provide justice for the environment that is affordable, accessible, efficient, and specialised. 

“We all deserve to live in a healthy environment and there can be no justice for people or the environment without accountability.”

The meeting will endorse a report which finds that despite law changes in 2018, Scotland remains in breach.

The compliance committee noted that the vagueness of Scotland’s rules relating to costs “introduces legal uncertainty and could have a chilling effect.”

Ann Coleman is a resident of Greengairs, North Lanarkshire, who has been fighting local environmental injustice for over 20 years. 

She and other villagers considered challenging a proposed incinerator at judicial review because they had concerns over its environmental and health impacts, but felt unable to take action due to the huge costs they would have faced.

Ms Coleman backed the introduction of an environmental court to give power to communities.

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