Spain is among the most advanced countries in the EU in environmental justice

The International Institute of Law and the Environment (IIDMA) has held the first Spanish training under the A2J-EARL Project on Access to Justice at the Representation of the European Commission in Madrid,  where  Spain’s progress in environmental justice at European Union level has been discussed, together with the main barriers that still persist. The main advance discussed at the training was the unprecedented Supreme Court Order of 13 March 2019, which exempted IIDMA from paying the amount of 11,260 € that the Institute was ordered to bear following a dismissed lawsuit against the Transitional National Plan (TNP) for large combustion plants. This order declared, for the first time in Spain, the annulment of the decisions approving the court costs assessment in an environmental procedure in favor of a non-for-profit organization in receipt of legal aid.

With this historic ruling, the Supreme Court recalls that environmental NGOs fulfilling the requirements established in Aarhus Law 27/2006 are not required to prove insufficient means for litigation, a requirement set in Legal Aid Law 1/1996 that would not apply in this case. The Aarhus Law, which reflects the provisions of the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters, is directly applicable as it is part of the Spanish legal system. Nor should the court costs be paid in the event the financial situation of the recipient NGO improves within three years from the end of the procedure.  This exception applies in those cases where an environmental organization complies with the Aarhus Law requirement to have access to justice, regardless of any consideration concerning its financial status.

Spain is currently one of the EU Member States with the best conditions for access to justice in environmental matters, ahead of countries such as Germany, Austria, Estonia or Hungary, where the “Loser pays principle” also applies but costs on access to justice tend to be prohibitive, likely to  have a deterrent effect on access to courts by NGOs.

However, the training also highlighted the major obstacles that still exist in access to justice in environmental matters in Spain. In particular, the lack of environmental knowledge and specialized training for the judiciary was suggested as a key issue, which must be urgently addressed through specific training programmes. This is not new: the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee has already warned Spain about the importance of taking action to address this gap, stating that further training to members of the judiciary and public administrations was a priority*. Barriers on access to justice such as disparity between the parties (which, for instance, may affect the chances for taking evidence during the procedure,), the recognition of standing to environmental non-for-profit organizations, or even the coverage of injunctive relief were also mentioned.

“Spain has made significant progress in the last year in terms of access to justice in environmental matters. However, we still find barriers for this exercise of this right given the lack of knowledge in the legal sector of key environmental legislation that is part of our legal system. For this reason, projects such as A2J-EARL are essential to fill these gaps, mostly at a time when environmental law is a key tool for the effective protection of our planet and the health of the people” says Alba Iranzo, IIDMA environmental lawyer and project coordinator.

“The Aarhus Convention, ratified by Spain in 2005 and published in the Spanish Official Journal, after which it became part of our legal system, recognizes the right of access to effective judicial mechanisms to guarantee the protection of the environment. The financial barriers and those resulting from  the lack of knowledge in the judiciary make our work more difficult, since many times we must go to Courts asking for the enforcement of environmental legislation. The Order of March 13, 2019 represents a breakthrough for non-for-profit organizations, as the possibility of being ordered to pay trial costs sometimes discourages NGOs from initiating judicial procedures” ” adds Ana Barreira, director of IIDMA and coordinator of the project.

Project A2J-EARL on Access to Justice, an initiative of Life+ and the European Commission.

The International Institute of Law and Environment (IIDMA) is the organization responsible for the development of the A2J-EARL Project on Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Spain, which is supported by the European Commission’s LIFE+ Programme. The “Training and Exchange of Good Practices in access to environmental justice” aimed at environmental lawyers and NGOs was held on 11 June 2019 at the Representation of the European Commission in Spain (Madrid), being one of the project activities. In addition to IIDMA´s lawyers, speakers such as Rafael Fernández Valverde, Judge of the Spanish Supreme Court and member of the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), and Eduardo Salazar, PHD in Law and environmental lawyer attended the event.

The project covers a three-year period (2017-2020) and is coordinated at European level by the organizations ClientEarth and Justice & Environment. It is implemented by environmental law organizations at the national level in 8 different Member States: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Spain, Estonia, France, Hungary and Poland.

The main goal of the project is to promote effective access to justice in environmental matters and to remove existing obstacles through training and awareness raising of the legal sector in each Member State. To this end, among the different actions of the project are training sessions and the development of a wide range of information tools aimed at key actors, such as members of the judiciary, public administration (state and regional levels), the environment area of the Spanish Ombudsman, academia, environmental NGOs and environmental lawyers, among others, many of whom participated proactively in the A2J training sharing experiences and discussing the main challenges to face in this field. The Project provides for the holding of two similar training sessions in Spain during 2019.

* In its Recommendations regarding Communication ACCC/C/2008/24 after its 26th meeting in 2009.

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