Environmental charities allowed to challenge changes to court cost rules

Three environmental charities have been given permission to challenge court regulations which they say make it too financially risky to bring cases over air pollution standards or the expansion of Heathrow airport.

A high court judge has agreed to limit costs liabilities of the RSPB, ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth to £10,000 in their action against the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which introduced the new rules earlier this year.

Changes to cost protection orders brought in by the MoJ expose campaign groups to prohibitive costs running into potentially millions of pounds, and deter them from bringing important public interest cases, the campaign groups claim.

Mr Justice Dove has agreed to fast-track the case, which is likely to be heard this summer. The new rules also require claimants to reveal their personal finances in open court, plus the finances of any donors supporting the case.

In February, the House of Lords statutory instruments committee, which reviewed the rules, concluded: “Although the MoJ states that its policy intention is to introduce greater certainty into the regime, the strongly negative response to consultation and the submission received indicate the reverse outcome and that, as a result of the increased uncertainty introduced by these changes, people with a genuine complaint will be discouraged from pursuing it in the courts.”

The cost changes have been also been criticised by a UN committee, charged with reviewing access to the courts in the UK, in a report released last week which said the government was not yet meeting its legal obligations on access to justice under the Aarhus convention.

An MoJ spokesperson said on February: “The cost of bringing environmental challenges must not be prohibitively expensive, and our changes will ensure that individuals are not expected to pay legal costs above their means. Legal aid remains available for these cases.”

In a joint statement, ClientEarth, the RSPB and Friends of the Earth said: “People must be able to challenge their government when they think it is breaking the law. This is a basic democratic right. The new rules intentionally undermine this right, potentially making it so expensive that most people will be priced out of justice altogether.

“Faced with the risk of almost unlimited costs, who would put their finances, maybe even their house, on the line? Defending the environment should rely on the strength of your legal arguments, not the money in your pocket. Individuals, community groups and charities play a vital role in protecting the environment and they need financial certainty before taking a case to court. After leaving the EU, it will be even more important that people can use the UK courts to hold our government to account.

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