HomePolitical leadershipLegal action is a last, but necessary, resort

Legal action is a last, but necessary, resort

no2dirtyair-at-royal-courts-of-justice-11No 10’s former energy and environment adviser, Stephen Heidari-Robinson, suggested on Inside Track that ClientEarth’s legal action against the government would obstruct progress on air pollution. This response is by James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth. 

Why do governments get taken to court?
My view, as an environmental lawyer dedicated to the public interest, is simple enough. Legal action ensures that governments comply with the law and act in the best interests of the environment, the country and its citizens.

That shouldn’t really come as any surprise to anyone, although of course governments might not like being held to their legal commitments.

No one, least of all an organisation like ClientEarth which relies on donations, wants to embark on the costly option of taking ministers to court.

It is necessary at times though, particularly when tens of thousands of lives are at risk because an intransigent government persistently fails to comply with the law, which is where we find ourselves on air pollution in the UK.

When an environmental law is passed – or any law for that matter – it must be heeded. That doesn’t mean just some of the time, or by some of the people. It means all of the time, by all of the people. And that includes public authorities.

If you pass a law and fail to enforce it, in effect you authorise the conduct you sought to prohibit.

Since 2010, the UK government has failed to comply with the legal limits set to cut air pollution and protect human health.

The government can’t ignore the law when it feels like it
Defra’s argument to the Supreme Court was that national courts should not sanction government for non-compliance. In a victory for common sense, and for ClientEarth, in 2015 the Supreme Court disagreed.

What sort of democracy would we be living in if we as citizens had to comply with the laws put in place by government, but ministers could ignore them when they felt like it? Many autocrats enjoy such an ability to ignore the law. But, since the Magna Carta, we have committed to live under the rule of law, government and citizens alike.

The idea that we should just lie back and let the government disregard it when the law is being breached, is revealed as nonsense as soon as it is stated.

And the government’s laissez-faire approach means that there are 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK caused by air pollution.

ClientEarth’s initial court case forced the government to begin looking seriously at the air quality problems which we continue to face in Britain. It was forced to draw up a new Air Quality Plan, however unsatisfactory.

With a bit of political will and initiative, and a sense of urgency, ministers could begin to solve the invisible toxic air problems which many of us, unknowingly, face every day, as we head to school, run in the park, ride to work or walk to the shops.

Three House of Commons Environmental Audit committee reports called for action from the government. They were ignored. The government’s response to a highly critical Environment Food and Rural Affairs committee report was published today.

There’s still no plan for air pollution
So, has the government announced a comprehensive new initiative to tackle our dirty air? No. Which somewhat proves our point.

Cleaning the air is not rocket science. Others are working on it with far more dedication. In Los Angeles, which has a ring of mountains that hold in the smog, state regulators have taken rigorous steps for more than three decades, and they get results. They are focused on the problem, and dedicated to long term solutions. Our government could learn much in terms of attitude as well as techniques from them.

By failing to make the air safe to breathe, the UK government has broken its contract with the people.

In the absence of political will and solutions, ministers need to be forced to take action. So ClientEarth will return, reluctantly, to court on the 18 and 19 October.

We hope to have your backing, because it’s your health, and mine, which is at stake.

Image: ClientEarth

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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