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.

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.

Limits to calling upon intellectual property to justify non-disclosure of environmental information – The ECJ in Greenpeace and PAN Europe v Commission (glyphosate)

The ECJ yesterday morning held in an important case with respect to the EU’s transparency regime.

Regulation 1049/2001 constitutes the general regime on access to documents held by EU Institutions. Regulation 1367/2006 implements the Aarhus Convention as far as the EU Institutions are concerned. Directive 91/414 is the plant protection Directive. Under the plant protection Directive, Germany had been the Member State with responsibility to report on the acceptability of approving glyphosate. Greenpeace and Pesticide Action Network Europe had requested access to

–        a copy of the draft assessment report issued by Germany, prior to the first inclusion of glyphosate in Annex I to Directive 91/414;

–        a complete list of all tests submitted by the operators seeking the inclusion of glyphosate in Annex I;

–        the full, complete and original test documents supplied by the operators seeking the inclusion of glyphosate in Annex I, in so far as concerns all long-term toxicity tests, all mutagenicity tests, carcinogenicity tests, neurotoxicity tests and all reproduction studies.

The Commission, upon assist by Germany, granted access to the draft report, with the exception of volume 4 thereof, which the German authorities refused to disclose and which includes the complete list of all tests submitted by the operators seeking the first inclusion of glyphosate in Annex I. Germany was of the opinion that the document at issue contained confidential information relating to the intellectual property rights of the operators which had sought the inclusion of glyphosate in Annex I to Directive 91/414, namely the detailed chemical composition of the active substance produced by each of them, detailed information concerning the process by which each of them produced the substance, information on the impurities, the composition of the finished products and the contractual relations between the various operators which had sought the inclusion of glyphosate.

The ECJ noted the important impact of 1367/2006 on the working of the basic Regulation, Regulation 1049/2001: the first sentence of Article 6(1) of Regulation No 1367/2006 lays down a legal presumption that an overriding public interest in disclosure (relevant for the application of exceptions written into Regulation 1049/2001) exists where the information requested relates to emissions into the environment, except where that information concerns an investigation, in particular one concerning possible infringements of EU law. The Court held that accordingly,  the first sentence of Article 6(1) of Regulation No 1367/2006 requires that if the institution concerned receives an application for access to a document, it must disclose it where the information requested relates to emissions into the environment, even if such disclosure is liable to undermine the protection of the commercial interests of a particular natural or legal person, including that person’s intellectual property, within the meaning of Article 4(2), first indent, of Regulation No 1049/2001. (at 38) The Court rejected any attempt by the EC to soften the impact of Article 6(1) of Regulation 1367/2006: ‘in claris non fit interpretatio’, the provision has to be read on its prima facie meaning. Any other application ‘would amount to disapplying a clear and unconditional provision of a European Union regulation, which is not even claimed to be contrary to a superior rule of law.‘ (at 44 in fine)

The Court subsequently at length considered the meaning of ‘environmental information’ and gave this a wide interpretation.

The case is a good illustration of the complex web of transparency requirements and the consistent approach of the ECJ in favour of disclosure.

Geert.

Aarhus watch: a UK breach, and a fudge

The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee shows its teeth. Coyly, perhaps, and not quite with definitive results. But it does show its teeth. Also an interesting reference to the inadequacy of judicial review. Geert.

UK Human Rights Blog

023stirling1DM_468x312ACCC/C/2012/68 read draft findings here and ACCC/C/2010/45 read findings here

Two interesting decisions from the Geneva-based Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) about whether the UK planning system complies with the UN-ECE Aarhus Convention.

The first was given excellent recent coverage in the Independent – a Scottish wind farm case where UK plans for renewable energy had not received the public consultation which Article 7 of the Convention required. The second, which promised much (see my previous post), ducked the issues in a rather unsatisfactory way.

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Is justice what you can afford to be done? ECJ turns to Aarhus Convention to apply ‘not prohibitively expensive’ in the EIA Directive.

In Edwards, the European Court of Justice (‘ECJ’) turned to the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, to interpret the provision ‘not prohibitively expensive’ in the European Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment (‘EIA’). These provide that members of the public (with sufficient interest) must have access to a review procedure before a court of law or another independent and impartial body established by law to challenge the substantive or procedural legality of decisions, acts or omissions subject to the public participation provisions of the Directive. Any such procedure must be, in the words of the Directive, ‘fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive.’

The House of Lords had affirmed a Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss the appeal of Ms Pallikaropoulos and, on 18 July 2008, ordered her to pay the respondents’ (including the Environment Agency) costs of the appeal, the amount of which, in the event of disagreement between the parties, was to be fixed by the Clerk of the Parliaments. The respondents submitted two bills for recoverable costs in the amounts of GBP 55 810 and GBP 32 290. The jurisdiction of the House of Lords was transferred to the newly-established Supreme Court and the detailed assessment of the costs was carried out by two costs officers appointed by the President of the Supreme Court. In that context, Ms Pallikaropoulos relied on Directives 85/337 and 96/61 to challenge the costs order that had been made against her.

The Supreme Court asked the ECJ inter alia

– whether the question whether the cost of the litigation is or is not “prohibitively expensive” within the meaning of Article 9(4) of the Aarhus Convention as implemented by [those] directives be decided on an objective basis (by reference, for example, to the ability of an “ordinary” member of the public to meet the potential liability for costs), or should it be decided on a subjective basis (by reference to the means of the particular claimant) or upon some combination of these two bases?, and whether

– in considering whether proceedings are, or are not, “prohibitively expensive”, is it relevant that the claimant has not in fact been deterred from bringing or continuing with the proceedings?

In 2003, the EIA Directive had been amended and specific reference had been made to the Aaurhus Convention with which, the Directive said, the EIA Directive had to be ‘properly aligned’.

The ECJ held that the cost of proceedings must neither exceed the financial resources of the person concerned nor appear, in any event, to be objectively unreasonable.  As regards the analysis of the financial situation of the person concerned, the assessment which must be carried out by the national court cannot be based exclusively on the estimated financial resources of an ‘average’ applicant, since such information may have little connection with the situation of the person concerned. The national court may also take into account the situation of the parties concerned, whether the claimant has a reasonable prospect of success, the importance of what is at stake for the claimant and for the protection of the environment, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the potentially frivolous nature of the claim at its various stages. That the claimant has not been deterred, in practice, from asserting his or her claim is not in itself sufficient to establish that the proceedings are not, as far as that claimant is concerned, prohibitively expensive.

Plenty of criteria therefore for the Supreme Court to consider, altogether a (slight but important) dent in Member States’ national civil procedure rules.

Geert.

Listing by ECHA of a substance as a candidate ‘substance of very high concern’ may be challenged in Luxembourg – The ECJ in Bilbaína de Alquitranes

In Bilbaína de Alquitranes, the ECJ (General Court) has held that producers of chemical substances may challenge the legality of the decision by ECHA to put a substance on the candidate list of ‘substances of very high concern’ under the REACH Regulation. The judgment is a useful addition to the strict conditions under the Treaty on European Union to seek judicial review of decisions made by the EU Institutions.

The appeal was rejected on substance, however both with respect to the issue of what are ‘final’ decisions that may be challenged, and on ‘individual’ and ‘direct’ concern, the judgment is worth a read. I have a summary of the issues pre-Lisbon over at SSRN. Especially in environmental matters, the Court’s case-law on locus standi has for a long time been very limiting.

Geert.

Aarhus Convention trumps narrow EU provisions on access to justice – Court of Justice in Stichting Natuur en Milieu

International environmental law is often said to be toothless. The Aarhus Convention, too, is typically equated with fluffiness and the type of language (inter alia because of the high degree of deference to national law) typical of soft-law. Yet in Case T-338/08, the General Court at the Court of Justice of the EU (effectively a first instance court in cases such as these), annulled relevant decisions of the European Commission (‘EC’), finding them to be based on an improper implementation of the Aarhus Convention.

Stichting Natuur en Milieu and Pesticide Action Network Europe, had applied for internal EC review of the relevant Regulation which specifies maximum residue levels of pesticides for relevant food and feed products (the maximum levels being too lenient according to these NGOs). The argument upon which the applicants were successful (victory was not universal), concerned the narrow interpretation which EU law gives in relevant part to ‘acts’ which under Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention, must be subject to review by interested parties, to establish whether they infringe the environmental laws of the Aarhus Party concerned. EU law effectively restricts access to justice to those cases where interested parties take issue with measures of an individual scope (‘administrative acts’), as opposed to those of general application (‘acts’ full stop).

The General Court first of all established that the EC in the case at issue did not act in a legislative capacity (which would have made Article 9 Aarhus inoperable) but rather used its executive authority. Furthermore, notwithstanding the absence of definition of ‘act’ in the Aarhus Convention, the Court held that it cannot have limited itself to measures of individual scope only.

The EC may appeal with the Court of Justice; should it not do so, or should the Court confirm the General Court’s view, the EC first of all will have to reconsider the relevant Regulations, setting the maximum levels concerned. Moreover, it must surely take the initiative to amend the underlying Aarhus Regulation, so as to expand the notion of ‘act’ which is subject to internal review.

The judgment is a cautious step, for the access to justice provisions of the EU are generally said to infringe the Aarhus Convention on more than this issue alone.

Geert.