Polluters targeted by court dedicated to environmental cases

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The Independent Online

Judges are to be given tough powers to protect Britain from pollution and over-development under propoosals for a new environmental court.

Judges are to be given tough powers to protect Britain from pollution and over-development under propoosals for a new environmental court.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has commissioned two reports which back the creation of a dedicated court headed by senior judges specialising in environmental law.

The move follows concern that the legal system has failed to meet the growing threat posed by industry and multi-national companies. The new court would have a wide jurisdiction, hearing prosecutions against polluters, settling planning disputes as well as dealing with other potential threats to the environment, such as the siting of GM crops, wind turbines or even airports.

One of the reports, by environmental consultants Capacity Global, found there is a perception of a "failure of the government and the legal system to recognise the strong public interest element of environmental cases". This is combined with a perceived bias of judges and other adjudicators towards "development and commerce"- a bias often reflected by lenient sentences meted out in magistrates' courts. It recommends a specialist environmental court is made up of a panel of judges and non-legal environment experts..

A second study, also commissioned by Defra, found that just as many judicial review challenges were being brought by big business as by individuals or groups threatened by pollution or development. The report, undertaken by the Centre for Law and the Environment at University College London, concluded that the new court should be a higher tribunal to hear appeals on all environmental law policy. New rights of appeal would be extended to third parties, who under the current law have no power to challenge planning or other decisions that affect the environment.

A further recommendation being considered by ministers is to make more legal aid available for environmental cases.

Senior members of the judiciary, including the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, support the call for the new court. Lord Woolf is known to be concerned that the BSE crisis, GM food trials and the foot-and-mouth epidemic created a "perception that politically expedient decisions" were taking "priority over what is really in the interest of the public and the environment".

In a recent speech, he said the lack of public scrutiny had caused "a vicious spiral of secrecy leading to suspicion, and sometimes irrational hysteria, about the environment".

A new court, staffed by specialist judges and backed up by a regulatory body to oversee scientists, would help protect the environment and public, he said. A proper regulator involved in the BSE crisis at an early stage might have averted the catastrophe by "demanding tough action", he added.

A number of other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have already created their own specialist environmental courts.

A Defra conference, organised by the Environmental Law Foundation, will be considering the case for the new court later this year. The environmental justice review is also being taken forward by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.