Posts Tagged Aarhus Convention

Information law: when something is “on” an environmental measure

Aarhus, Access to Environmental Information Directive. Review of Henney [2017] EWCA Civ 844 .

 

UK Human Rights Blog

Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy v. Information Commissioner and Henney [2017] EWCA Civ 844 , 29 June 2017 – read judgment

As many will know, there are two different systems of freedom of information, the first and better known, the Freedom for Information Act 2000, and the second, the Environmental Information Regulations 2009. From the perspective of the inquirer (Mr Henney, here), the EIRs are the more favourable, and it was the differences between the systems which gave rise to this long-running dispute to do with energy Smart Meters.

The appeal went in favour of Mr Henney, and the Information Commissioner who had ruled in his favour. But the ultimate case is not resolved, as I shall explain.

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CJEU finds Aarhus does not add value in Belgian VAT case.

As a practising lawyer registered to the Belgian Bar I had more than a passing interest in C‑543/14 Orde van Vlaamse Balies v Ministerraad. The case was held on 28 July. At issue is the reversal of the Belgian exemption of legal services from value-added tax (VAT). Of interest for this blog was the Bar Council’s argument that making legal services subject to VAT endangers access to court for individuals. Corporations recover said VAT from the tax their own sales incur. For them, making legal services subject to VAT has zero impact on their books.

The Bar Council sought support among others in the Aarhus Convention, particularly Article 9(4) and (5) on access to court:

‘3.       In addition and without prejudice to the review procedures referred to in paragraphs 1 and 2 above, each Party shall ensure that, where they meet the criteria, if any, laid down in its national law, members of the public have access to administrative or judicial procedures to challenge acts and omissions by private persons and public authorities which contravene provisions of its national law relating to the environment.

4.       In addition and without prejudice to paragraph 1 above, the procedures referred to in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 above shall provide adequate and effective remedies, including injunctive relief as appropriate, and be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive. Decisions under this article shall be given or recorded in writing. Decisions of courts, and whenever possible of other bodies, shall be publicly accessible.

5.       In order to further the effectiveness of the provisions of this article, each Party shall ensure that information is provided to the public on access to administrative and judicial review procedures and shall consider the establishment of appropriate assistance mechanisms to remove or reduce financial and other barriers to access to justice.’

Perhaps taking inspiration from the Grand Chamber’s approach in Vereniging Milieudefensie, and consistent with the suggestion of Sharpston AG, the five judges Chamber dismissed direct effect for Articles 9(4) and (5) of Aarhus, mostly because of the Conventions deference in Article 9(3) to ‘national law’.

Given the increasing (but as noted recently qualified; see also here) cloud the CJEU’s Grand Chamber had been given Aarhus, this finding by a five judge chamber that Aarhus Articles 9(4) and (5) do not have direct effect is a little awkward. It also puts the Grand Chamber itself in a challenging position. There are quite a number of Aarhus-related cases pending. Will this chamber’s view on 9(4) and (5) be followed by the assembled top dogs? And if it is not, can the Grand Chamber overrule or distinguish without embarrassment?

Geert.

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On ‘reasonable amounts’, Aarhus, and the price of environmental information. Sharpston AG in East Sussex County Council.

In East Sussex County Council Case C-71/14, the question under consideration is the application of Directive 2003/4 ‘s reasonableness test. Article 5 of the Directive provides that in situ access to information to for example public registers has to be free of charge. Further, that charges for supplying any environmental information must be ‘reasonable’.

In particular, how ‘objective’ must a reasonable cost be, seen against the light of English statutory law which allows local authorities to specify access (and other) fees providing that the amount ‘shall not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount’. Application in that case is made by a property search group with a view to commercial conveyancing. Sharpston AG on 16 April 2015 opined that even for commercial applicants, authorities’ hands are quite tied. In particular,

  • that Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 does not authorise a public authority to recover, through a charge for supplying information, all or part of the costs of establishing and maintaining a database in which it has organised the environmental information it holds and which it uses to answer requests for information of the type listed in a questionnaire such as that at issue in the main proceedings.
  • that a charge which does not exceed a reasonable amount within the meaning of Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is a charge which: (i) is set on the basis of objective factors that are known and capable of review by a third party; (ii) is calculated regardless of who is asking for the information and for what purpose; (iii) is set at a level that guarantees the objectives of the right of access to environmental information upon request and thus does not dissuade people from seeking access or restrict their right of access; and (iv) is no greater than an amount that is appropriate to the reason why Member States are allowed to make this charge (that is, that a member of the public has made a request for the supply of environmental information) and directly correlated to the act of supplying that information; that
  • In particular, a charge of a ‘reasonable amount’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is to be based on the costs actually incurred in connection with the act of supplying environmental information in response to a specific request. That will include the costs of staff time spent on searching for and producing the information requested and the cost of producing it in the form requested (which may vary). However, it is not permissible for such a charge also to seek to recover overheads such as heating, lighting or internal services. And that
  • Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 requires public authorities to ensure that their charges do not exceed a reasonable amount, judged by the yardstick of what a ‘reasonable amount’ means objectively under EU law. That does not, as such, preclude a rule of national law according to which a public authority must satisfy itself that a charge levied meets that standard, however, Member State to ensure that there is (first) administrative and (then) judicial review of whether a public authority’s decision on what constitutes a reasonable charge is in conformity with the autonomous EU law meaning of what is ‘reasonable’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4.

In other words: the current wording in the relevant English statute, in the view of the AG, does not infringe the Directive. (It does in my view at least however add a layer of complication: for the authority’s subjective finding of reasonableness subsequently has to be checked, in two tiers of appeal (administrative cq judicial), against the Directive’s objective standard).

Aarhus is considered throughout the appeal and hence Charles Banner’s book on the Aarhus Convention, just out with Hart, a timely publication I would think.

Geert.

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Court of Justice dismisses Vereniging Milieudefensie in air quality appeal. Aarhus not always the jawbreaker in judicial review.

In Joined Cases C‑401/12 P to C‑403/12 P, the issues at stake are the scope of judicial review (in the specific context of information requests), the EU’s long and difficult relationship with locus standi in environmental matters (again though within the perhaps more narrow context of access to information), the correct implementation of the Aarhus Convention, and the direct effect of said Convention. The judgment which the ECJ issued yesterday, underlines the need to review the direct effect of international law on a case-by-case and indeed article-by-article basis. While it is clear that the European Court of Justice overall has great sympathy for the binding impact of the Aarhus Convention (see i.a. my postings on the ECJ’s judgments in cases related to the cost of environmental litigation), in this case the relevant environmental organisations failed to convince the ECJ that Article 9 of the Convention has direct effect.

Article 9 Aarhus provides a review procedure in the event requests for information have been refused. (Readers may wish to consult Article 9 themselves to judge direct effect or lack of it themselves).

Regulation 1367/2006 implements the Aarhus Convention is-a-vis the EU Institutions. The case concerns Article 10 of that regulation, entitled ‘Request for internal review of administrative acts’, which provides in paragraph 1 thereof: ‘Any non-governmental organisation which meets the criteria set out in Article 11 is entitled to make a request for internal review to the Community institution or body that has adopted an administrative act under environmental law or, in case of an alleged administrative omission, should have adopted such an act.

Article 2(1)(g) of that Regulation defines ‘administrative act’ as meaning: ‘any measure of individual scope under environmental law, taken by a Community institution or body, and having legally binding and external effects’.

The Netherlands, in accordance with Article 22 of the ambient air quality Directive, Directive 2008/50, had notified the Commission that it had postponed the deadline for attaining the annual limit values for nitrogen dioxide in nine zones and that it was availing itself of a specific exemption from the obligation to apply the daily and annual limit values for particulate matter. The Commission accepted that postponement. Vereniging Milieudefensie and Stichting Stop Luchtverontreiniging Utrecht submitted a request to the Commission for internal review of that decision pursuant to aforementioned Article 10(1). The EC refused internal review.  The Commission considered the request inadmissible as the concerned acts in their view were not “administrative acts” as defined in Article 2(1)(g), not being, the EC argued , of ‘individual scope’ but rather of general application.

The General Court sided with applicants: because Article 10(1) of Regulation 1367/2006 limits the concept of “acts” that can be challenged by NGOs to “administrative acts” defined in Article 2(1)(g) of the Regulation as “measures of individual scope”, it argued that the Regulation is not compatible with Article 9(3) Aarhus. That judgment was appealed by many. The AG in current case also sided with the applicants. (Albeit following a different reasoning than the General court).

The ECJ itself disagreed. The provisions of an international agreement to which the European Union is a party can be relied on in support of an action for annulment of an act of secondary EU legislation or an exception based on the illegality of such an act only where, first, the nature and the broad logic of that agreement do not preclude it and, secondly, those provisions appear, as regards their content, to be unconditional and sufficiently precise. (Ex multi, the ECJ quoted its judgment in the Emissions Trading Scheme case, C-366/10).

Article 9(3) Aarhus, the Court held, does not contain any unconditional and sufficiently precise obligation capable of directly regulating the legal position of individuals and therefore does not meet those conditions: since only members of the public who ‘meet the criteria, if any, laid down in … national law’ are entitled to exercise the rights provided for in Article 9(3), that provision is subject, in its implementation or effects, to the adoption of a subsequent measure at the national level. The Aarhus Contracting Parties enjoy have a broad margin of discretion when defining the rules for the implementation of the ‘administrative or judicial procedures’ (at 59 in fine).

We were quite getting used to Aarhus being employed as a jawbreaker by the ECJ and national courts alike. I am not saying those days are over. However Vereniging Milieudefensie does show both that we cannot assume the Convention’s empowering effect for all of its provisions, and secondly, that at the level of the Convention itself, beefing up one or two articles would certainly assist its implementation. (That in itself, of course, may become more difficult the more frequent the ECJ and national courts both in the EU and elsewhere, employ Aarhus against unwilling State authorities).

Geert.

PS note that in Joined Cases C‑404/12 P and C‑405/12 P, Stichting Natuur en Milieu, the ECJ mirrors this judgment with respect to an internal review of a Regulation setting maximum residue levels for pesticides.

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Supreme Court goes Jules Verne and crosses the HS2 Bridge at high speed. Aarhus, SEA, EIA and supremacy of EU law all fail to make an impact.

In Chapter XXVIII of Jules Verne’s Around the world in Eighty Days, the train driver, egged on by enthusiastic US passengers and despite objections by Passepartout, reverses his train to cross a wobbly bridge (successfully) at high speed. With all passengers on board. It is a favourite chapter of mine and one which comes in handily in risk management classes.

In HS2 Action Alliance v Secretary of State for Transport, the United Kingdom Supreme Court took inspiration from Chapter XXVIII in dismissing all arguments based on the Aarhus Convention, the EIA Directive, the SEA Directive, and supremacy of EU law. These arguments were raised against the UK Government’s  ‘Command paper’, “High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Decisions and Next Steps” . The command papers sets in motion the reality of the development of the HSs high speed rail link between the South of England, the north and Scotland.

Lord Carnwath summarised the legal issues as follows (at 15):

i) SEA whether the DNS in the circumstances of HS2 is a “plan or programme” which “sets the framework for development consent” and was “required by administrative provisions” within the meaning of articles 2-3 of Directive 2001/42/EC (“the SEA Directive”).

ii) Aarhus whether if the interpretation of the majority in the Court of Appeal is correct, article 3(2)(a) of the SEA Directive is inconsistent with article 7 of the Aarhus Convention, and if so with what consequences.

iii) EIA/Hybrid Bill whether the Hybrid Bill procedure as proposed meets the requirements of Directive 2011/92/EU (“the EIA Directive”), taking account in particular that (a) issues of principle will be excluded from the Select Committee stage, and (b) the debate on the Bill at Second and Third Reading will be subject to a Government whip.

iv) Timing whether the court should intervene at this stage, or whether the court should wait until the Parliamentary process is completed;

v) CJEU reference whether any of the above questions raise uncertain issues of European law on which a reference should be made to the European court.

David Hart QC superbly summarises the Court’s findings and much of its reasoning over at the Human Rights blog and I am happy to refer my readers to him to get, well, up to speed on the judgment. I should simply like to point out that the Court’s boldness lies not so much in the merits of its decision, rather in the more or less belligerent wording and indeed telling off aimed at the Court of Justice.

With respect to Strategic Environmental Assessment – SEA [aimed at ensuring that environmental impacts are identified upstream, by ensuring that programs and plans which will lead to EIA-bound projects, are vetted themselves], a command paper formally does not set anything in stone about the ensuing (or not) development of the project which it will lead to. Much can still change and Members of Parliament have every right and prerogative to have the project amended or indeed scrapped altogether. However, clearly this is a project the realisation of which the government will want to ensure. It is in my view not merely ‘policy’, but a proper plan. Whence in reality this is exactly the kind of program which the SEA Directive had in mind when pressing for impact assessment upstream. Like the train carrying Passepartout et al, the adoption of this Command Paper has set in motion developments which will be all but impossible to stop. With one step following logically from the other, the intentions addressed in the Command Paper display a high degree therefore of fait accompli. The intent and purpose of the SEA Directive in my view does require its application in casu. I appreciate however that intent and purpose as interpretative tool is met lukewarmly by the Supreme Court. (I grant moreover that the Supreme Court does justifiably criticise some of the ECJ’s case-law on the EIA Directive, where very clear provisions nevertheless were altered in their meaning by reference to intent and purpose. The ‘claris’ in ‘in claris non fit interpretatio’ clearly lies in the eye of the beholder).

Of particular EU institutional interest is the Supreme Court’s reference to the Bill of Rights (at 206), Parliamentary Sovereignty, and the 2013 Bundesverfassungsgericht’s judgment on  the Counter-Terrorism Database Act. (Translated by the SC in relevant part as as part of a co-operative relationship, a decision of the Court of Justice should not be read by a national court in a way that places in question the identity of the national constitutional order). The SC is right in pointing out the difficulty under the doctrine of separation of powers, of courts second-guessing not the way in which data were put before parliament, but rather how members of that parliament subsequently interpret and apply those data. More generally, though, in suggesting, when criticising the ECJ judgments on that role of the courts, to restrain the ECJ in its interpretative space, the Supreme Court inevitably joins the queue of national supreme courts which are jittery about the positioning of the ECJ (and the ECtHR) on their turf.

This judgment is of very high relevance both for EIA and SEA, and for EU Institutional law. No doubt much more to be chewed on.

Geert.

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Aarhus and costs recovery. The impact of the EIA Directive and the Convention post consent in Alyson Austin

Reminiscent of an earlier posting on costs, the High Court recently had to consider the impact of the EIA Directive on cost orders. Mrs Austin lives close to an opencast mining and reclamation site in Wales. She complains of noise from heavy machinery and dust, affecting her home and preventing her family from sleeping. Planning consent had been granted in 2005.  Mrs Austin’s current action is based on private nuisance proceedings, based inter alia on the allegation that some of the conditions attached to the consent have not been complied with. The claim therefore is related to post-EIA compliance and the order sought by Mrs Austin is one to limit her costs.

Milwyn Jarman QC held – upon assist by James Pereira and Jack Connah) – that direct applicability of the Aarhus Convention in the UK is limited to those parts which have been incorporated in the EU’s EIA Directive  [‘otherwise, it remains a matter to be taken into account (…) in resolving ambiguities or in exercising discretions’ – a narrow view perhaps, albeit supported by UK precedent, on the impact of the Convention in the UK’s legal order] and that the Directive itself, as far as its impact on costs is concerned, sees upon judicial review proceedings in the process of EIA-based consent only, not an action in private nuisance post such consent.

Leave to appeal was granted and shall be heard end of June. The Aarhus Committee itself is also considering the issue and will proceed with findings in 2014.

This issue has exercised various courts and officials in the UK for some time. The 2014 developments are eagerly awaited.

Geert.

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‘Public administrative functions’ – CRUZ VILLALÓN AG gives an EU definition in Fish Legal and jumpstarts European administrative law

Postscript the ECJ held in December 2013. The referring court held on substance in February 2015 (the water companies are public authorities because they have ‘special powers’).

Postscript 12 November 2015 see for similarish cosniderations under Human Rights law (rejection of Facebook as a hybrid public authority)Richardson v Facebook.

In Case C-279/12 Fish Legal, CRUZ VILLALÓN AG opined on 5 September last.

The case concerns private companies which manage a public service relating to the environment (water and sewage services) and the dispute centres on whether, in the circumstances of the case, the management of that service is of such a nature that, even though the companies concerned are private, they have to be regarded as ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of Directive 2003/4 and, in consequence, must comply with the request for information addressed to them by two private individuals.

In England and Wales, water and sewerage services may be provided only by companies which have been appointed by the Secretary of State or (now) by OFWAT (the economic regulator of the water industry in England and Wales) as water supply and/or sewerage undertaker for a particular area of England or Wales. Only a limited company may be appointed as a water or sewerage undertaker (Section 6(5)). The companies are run by boards of directors, accountable to the shareholders. The companies are run in accordance with normal commercial principles, as set out in their memoranda and articles of association, with the aim of generating profits for distribution to shareholders as dividends and for reinvestment in the business. The companies are subject to the rules binding upon all other public limited companies or limited companies. They receive no public subsidy. Neither borrowing nor investment decisions are directly dictated by government or any other public body. Nor is any borrowing by the companies backed by the State. Accordingly, each company’s funds are generated by charges to customers, the sale of shares and other rights issues, borrowing through the capital markets at normal commercial rates, and other commercial activities such as the sale of land and other assets.

In the case before the referring tribunal, access was sought by a non-profit-making organisation and by a natural person to information held by companies which the national authority did not regard as ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of Directive 2003/4.

Article 2(2) of directive 2003/4 reads

2. “Public authority” shall mean:

(a) government or other public administration, including public advisory bodies, at national, regional or local level;

(b) any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions under national law, including specific duties, activities or services in relation to the environment; and

(c) any natural or legal person having public responsibilities or functions, or providing public services, relating to the environment under the control of a body or person falling within (a) or (b).

Member States may provide that this definition shall not include bodies or institutions when acting in a judicial or legislative capacity. If their constitutional provisions at the date of adoption of this Directive make no provision for a review procedure within the meaning of Article 6, Member States may exclude those bodies or institutions from that definition.’

That EU law generally requires autonomous interpretations is not in doubt; within the specific context of access to information, the ECJ had already also confirmed that in Flachglas Torgau.  

As an aside, of note here is the AG’s view that ‘Admittedly, the concept in question is not relevant solely in the context of EU law; on the contrary, it comes within the ambit of an international convention – the Aarhus Convention – which is binding on the European Union and in the light of which Directive 2003/4 must be construed. Obviously, that directive is not decisive when it comes to the interpretation of the Aarhus Convention but it is decisive for the purposes of ensuring that the European Union meets its obligations in relation to that convention, since it can only do justice to them if it is able to ensure that, in the context of the European Union, the concept of ‘[n]atural or legal persons performing public administrative functions under national law’, as used in Article 2(2)(b) of the Aarhus Convention, is uniformly construed in all the Member States.’ I am not sure I agree but I am not an external relations expert and perhaps the extract just needed slightly more precise language: the Aarhus convention is a ‘mixed agreement’: both the EU and its Member States are a Party to it, for their respective spheres of competence. Does the EU have a calling (duty or even right to meddle) in the application of the Convention in the Member States?

Coming back to the issue under consideration: despite the need for autonomous interpretation, the specific EU provision under consideration itself refers to national law: Article 2(2)(b): ‘any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions under national law, (emphasis added). The AG suggests that this provision should be read purely in a factual sense: EU law cannot determine which persons or institutions actually perform those functions in each Member State, that is for the Member State to decide. However it is for EU law alone, to establish what those functions are and in what they consist. Put differently, ‘since certain functions are defined under EU law as ‘public administrative functions’, it will then be necessary to determine, in accordance with national law, which bodies – in addition to the public authorities in the strict sense – may perform such functions and are therefore covered by Article 2(2)(b) of Directive 2003/4.’ (emphasis in the original)

The AG then defines ‘‘public administrative functions’, within the context of the provision, as ‘functions by virtue of which individuals have imposed on them a will the immediate effectiveness of which, albeit subject to review, does not require their consent.‘ The AG suggests that ‘Article 2(2)(b) refers to individuals who, by virtue of a formal, express delegation of authority, exercise with some degree of autonomy certain official powers, whereas Article 2(2)(c) encompasses individuals who, without substantive autonomy, are instruments of the State for the purposes of the latter’s actions in the sphere of private relationships as a mere individual. Accordingly, both cases involve the State, either because an individual exercises public authority which is the monopoly of the State or because an individual allows the State (directly or via an intermediary) to act through him as an individual governed by private law.’ (at 103)

Finally the AG reviews how far the duty of information (and transparency) goes, and distinguishes two possible situations (at 117 ff – footnotes omitted)):

‘ (i) the situation of bodies or persons whose activities are limited to the management of a service under conditions which mean that they must be regarded as public authorities for the purposes of Directive 2003/4; and (ii) the situation of bodies or persons who, in addition to managing a service under such conditions, also perform other, completely unconnected, activities, an example being bodies or persons who also manage a service relating to the environment in another territory but under free competition conditions and without it being possible to classify them as ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of Directive 2003/4.

As far as the persons or bodies in situation (i) are concerned, the question is answered by Directive 2003/4 itself, Article 3(1) of which provides that ‘Member States shall ensure that public authorities are required, in accordance with the provisions of this Directive, to make available environmental information held by or for them to any applicant …’  In short, Directive 2003/4 imposes on the State – both the State stricto sensu and a ‘public authority’ in the broader sense of Article 2(2)(b) of Directive 2003/4 – the obligation to permit access to environmental information held by it, regardless of the capacity in which it obtained that information: in other words, both where that information is the result of exercising its imperium and where it is the result of its activities as a body governed by private law.

As far as the persons or bodies in situation (ii) are concerned, it is my view that they do not warrant the same treatment. They may be regarded as public authorities only to the extent that they perform activities relating to the environment in circumstances which may be classified as ‘control’ within the meaning of Article 2(2)(c) of Directive 2003/4; in other words, in so far as they act ‘under the control’ of the public authorities. Aside from that, they are merely individuals and, as such, are not subject to the requirement laid down in Article 3(1) of the directive.

I accept that, as the parties have observed, the foregoing may, in certain circumstances, give rise to a ‘hybrid’ situation which is difficult to handle in practice. In so far as that is the case, it is my opinion that, in the light of the spirit of Directive 2003/4 and its objective of promoting access to information held by the public authorities in the broadest sense of the term, situations of uncertainty should always be resolved in favour of the person requesting information.’

For EU law, the Court’s judgment will be of tremendous importance. ‘Public authorities’ is a concept which is used extensively in EU law. While formally opined vis-a-vis the environmental information Directive, it is clear that the analysis of the AG may be of general use for EU law and consequently will have an impact on the ever-increasing trend of privitisation and outsourcing of public functions.

Geert.

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