People on a panel at the Session at Maastricht Aarhus Convention in July 2014

United Nations push to reduce Scottish court costs

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Ever considered going to court to protect the environment? It is important some people do.

Most planning issues that end up in court are commercial – one company challenging the planning permission granted to another. But sometimes there are brave people who go to court ‘in the public interest’. In other words they don’t stand to gain anything from the result but go to protect wider democratic principles or the environment. After all the environment can’t go to court itself.

Marco McGinty and the long running Hunterston coal-fired power station case, which Planning Democracy has strongly supported, is a prime example of a court case in the public interest. Marco stood to gain nothing financially from the result, but could have risked unlimited costs and damages.

With pressure from something called the Aarhus Convention – a piece of international law the EU, UK and Scotland are bound to uphold or comply with – Marco’s case won the first ‘expenses cap’ in a Scottish environmental court case. This capped his expenses at £30,000 (not including lawyer’s fees).

This was an important principle to establish, and part of the reason why Planning Democracy supported his case from the start. Months later the Scottish courts finally made it easier for people to cap their costs when the court case was considered environmental.

But these costs are generally capped at £35,000 – way out of reach of most people. Scottish Legal Aid is getting harder to access and court fees for Judicial Review have more than doubled since 2012. All these mean fair access to justice is being denied.

This week the United Nations committee charged with implementing the Aarhus Convention agreed. Their meeting in Maastricht concluded on 2 July that the costs of accessing the courts in planning and environmental matters needed to be urgently reviewed.

“The 5th Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention recommends the UK to take urgent action to… review its system for allocating costs in all court procedures subject to article 9, and undertake practical and legislative measures to ensure that the allocation of costs in all such cases is fair and equitable and not prohibitively expensive.”

More details available here.

Have you ever considered going to court but been put off by the cost? Should the cost of public interest cases be reduced?

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