Legal Aid Day: Spain must remove financial barriers to environmental NGOs’ access to justice

On the occasion of the celebration of 12 July, the Day of Legal Aid, IIDMA recalls that Spain still has a long way to go in eliminating the financial barriers that still persist in access to environmental justice. Although the situation has improved with respect to previous years, obstacles such as the lack of training in environmental law for the judiciary or the unequal resources of litigants can have a dissuasive effect on environmental organizations when going to court by creating both substantive and financial barriers. Environmental law recognizes access to legal aid for non-profit environmental organizations without the need to justify their lack of resources to litigate, but the lack of knowledge of this regulation by the legal sector means that, sometimes, this right is not directly recognized.

The training of the professionals of the legal sector and the judiciary by means of specific programmes* is urgent, especially as there are no specialised courts in Spain for environmental matters. This has forced many environmental NGOs to go to court for the recognition of rights that are already included in environmental regulations, in addition to causing unnecessary delays and inefficiencies in the course of proceedings. This is the case of the exemption from the sentence on costs obtained by IIDMA this year in an unprecedent ruling by the Supreme Court which represents a key advance for effective access to justice for organizations dedicated to the defense of the environment.

The Aarhus Law 27/2006 establishes a series of requirements to guarantee access to justice for civil society organizations, following the Aarhus Convention, ratified by Spain in 2005. This Convention, after being published in the BOE, became part of our legal system, so it is directly applicable. However, on several occasions the Legal Aid Assistance Committees of some Autonomous Communities have denied NGOs this aid. For this reason, the Supreme Court Order of 13 March 2019, which exempted IIDMA from the payment of the 11,260 euros to which it was condemned when its claim against the National Transitional Plan (PNT) for Large Combustion Plants was rejected, has been a turning point and sets a precedent in Spain for environmental litigation.

“It is essential to remember the importance of ensuring effective access to justice on environmental matters, so that financial barriers do not dissuade civil society organizations that litigate in defense of the environment. The SC’s order of March 2019 is fundamental, as it was the first time that a court annulled the taxation of costs in favour of an environmental NGO with recognised free justice. However, there is still much to be done in this field. IIDMA is currently participating in the European Commission’s Life+ Programme A2J-EARL to promote better access to justice in Spain” says Alba Iranzo, environmental lawyer at IIDMA.

* In its Recommendations regarding Communication ACCC/C/2008/24 following its 26th meeting in 2009, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee noted that this lack of specialisation should be addressed through specific training programmes.