Scotland should create an environmental court, which would allow communities to contest government decisions on major windfarm applications and quickly resolve issues like pollution of rivers and the wider countryside.
The new policy commitment from the Scottish Conservatives would also see a streamlining of environmental cases which currently take too long to progress through current court processes.
Shadow environment secretary Donald Cameron, MSP, said the move would improve access to justice for people in rural communities, and organisations working to safeguard Scotland’s environment.
As it stands, most environmental disputes are heard in courts with no specific environmental expertise, and can often prove too expensive to pursue.
For example, in 2016 the John Muir Trust had to abandon an appeal in relation to a 67-turbine windfarm after being faced with legal bills of £500,000.
Creating a specific environmental court, the Scottish Conservatives said, would improve efficiency, have a wider positive impact on the environment, and create a fairer balance between those defending and launching cases.
Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, a replacement for the role played in environmental cases by both the European Commission and the EU’s Court of Justice will be required.
Scotland has been criticised for not fulfilling its obligations in relation to environmental justice:
Under the Scottish Conservative plans, one possibility is for an environmental court to be part of the Scottish Land Court, which already holds some environmental jurisdictions and is used for specialist lay members sitting with legally qualified judges.
Cameron said: “Creating a one-stop shop for environmental disputes would make life significantly easier for communities and environmental organisations.
“As it stands, when a group wants to appeal a major windfarm decision taken by the Scottish Government, or a village wants to stop pollution of a local river, the pathway to actually doing this is often complex, expensive and drawn-out.
“But now we have the chance to do something to directly help such people, and making the justice system much fairer when it comes to environmental issues.
“We can see examples where major environmental cases have fallen because those appealing simply can’t afford to go all the way through traditional court routes.
“That’s unfair, denies access to justice, and has to change.
“We’re forever hearing of the challenges Brexit will pose, usually from the SNP government.
“Well, this is an opportunity once Britain leaves the EU for Scotland to lead the way when it comes to environmental justice.”
A spokesman for the John Muir Trust said: “We welcome new thinking on how environmental issues are addressed in our planning and legal system. So the idea of introducing an Environmental Court is very timely.
“However, a number of issues would need to be addressed. Court action is very expensive so the way in which these cases were conducted would need to address this.
“Moreover, most people do not want to take an issue to a “court” of any kind and so a lower level, less confrontational, tribunal would be best for addressing planning issues which involve environmental issues – a system which would allow the quality of a planning decision to be reviewed, not just challenge whether the planning process has been correctly followed.
“This would go a long way towards restoring public confidence in the planning and legal systems and might also address Scotland’s non-compliance with the Aarhus Convention, which exists to allow the public a say in environmental decision-making.”
The Scottish Government said it is “committed to maintaining the same high environmental standards” after leaving the EU, adding: “We are taking this matter very seriously.
6 Feb 2018