The UK government’s actions have been declared unlawful by a judge, for the third time on the same issue. And what’s more, the judge has ensured that the government can be brought back to court as many times as needed until it starts acting within the law; making “legal history”, according to the group that brought the case.
Air pollution is directly linked to around 40,000 early deaths every year. Despite this, the government has repeatedly been allowing air pollution levels to breach legal EU limits. But this has not gone unnoticed, as legal campaign group ClientEarth has been using the law in an attempt to force the government to act. And so far, it – not the government – is winning.
Making ‘legal history’
In its latest case, ClientEarth accused the government of acting illegally. This was because the government’s plans for 45 local authorities which have been breaching air pollution limits were not sufficient. And the judge in the case, Mr Justice Garnham, agreed. He said [paywall] that the government’s plans were “not sufficient” and “seriously flawed”.
Garnham ordered that Environment Secretary Michael Gove must:
ensure that, in each of the 45 areas, steps are taken to achieve compliance as soon as possible, by the quickest route possible and by a means that makes that outcome likely.
But Garnham then went further. He said that, in the future, ClientEarth could bring the government back to court whenever it felt that it had acted unlawfully again. This essentially means that the court will now have oversight of every government policy decision regarding air pollution.
The opposing sides say…
ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop said:
The judge has effectively allowed us to bring this matter straight back to court without delay if the government continues to fall short of its duties… it means we will be able to monitor the government’s actions even more effectively and hold them to account.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) told The Guardian:
We had previously considered that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach to such areas. However, in view of the court’s judgement, we are happy to take a more formal line with them. We have already delivered significant improvements in air quality since 2010 and we will continue to implement our £3.5bn air quality plan.
This is now the third time ClientEarth has won an air pollution case against the government; the first being in 2015 and the second in 2016. But the challenge that the group, and society, has is that judges can rule that the government has acted unlawfully; but they are failing to compel it to act. Also, it’s not just the UK courts. The EU, the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have all criticised the UK government’s track record on air pollution. And so far, the government has done little to address their concerns, either.
In September 2017, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights related to toxic waste said the government was ‘flouting its duty’ to protect the public’s health and lives against air pollution. And in October 2017, the WHO said that 44 out of 51 UK cities listed on an air quality database were breaching safe levels of air pollution.
The government’s shrugging of its shoulders
In previous ClientEarth cases, the government responded by merely moving its own goalposts slightly. And then, it went back to court again – all at the taxpayer’s expense. But it has form when it comes to ignoring condemnation from international bodies – the case of the UN saying it had committed “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s rights being a prime example.
It’s difficult to see what will compel the government to take the UK’s air pollution crisis seriously. Repeated legal action, international condemnation and 40,000 deaths a year don’t seem to be enough.
– Support ClientEarth.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?