While the body of EU environmental policy and regulation is one of the most advanced and comprehensive in the world, an implementation gap has become evident. Strong legislative and policy frameworks are not providing the results that they should because they are not properly implemented. Experience across EU Member States has shown that relying solely on public authorities to overcome the implementation deficit will not yield the required results. Therefore, active citizens, either acting on their own or via NGOs, are essential to support the actions of authorities. There are many ways in which such ‘citizen enforcement’ could take place. However, in order to be truly effective, it needs to involve access to judicial review.
The LIFE-A2J-EARL project aimed to improve the implementation and enforcement of EU environmental law by providing the public with effective access to justice, such as judicial review, administrative review and complaints to other appeal bodies. Access to justice is a fundamental means through which citizens and NGOs can support the implementation and enforcement of laws and policies to protect the environment. In order to reach this long-term goal, the project aimed to: increase awareness of existing rules and case-law on access to justice in environmental matters for specific target audiences; increase understanding of the importance of ensuring proper access to justice for the implementation of EU environmental laws and policies; increase understanding of specific challenges and obstacles to proper access to justice in environmental matters both at national and EU level; and increase knowledge and capacity for overcoming legal (both substantial and procedural) challenges and obstacles to effective access to justice in the environmental field.
The LIFE-A2J-EARL project raised awareness among selected European environmental lawyers and civil society organisations concerning the involvement of NGOs and citizens in helping enforce environmental law. The project team prepared 8 legal analyses, 2 awareness-raising materials (guides) on EU law and the Aarhus Convention, 8 national Stakeholder Registers, and 8 national Stakeholder Analysis Matrices. Within the project framework, 8 national workshops were held. An online public interest lawyer database was created, with the inclusion of 117 lawyers from 15 countries, expanding to an additional 7 countries (Bulgaria, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the UK) beyond the core geographical scope of the project. By the end of the project, 48 training sessions were held, and 1 257 experts were trained on access to justice in the field of environment.
The project team conducted 12 webinars, where 664 persons were trained, while recorded videos were downloaded 1 635 times. Altogether 2 090 people attended the project’s capacity building events (twice more than foreseen). In more detail, 169 people attended the national workshops, 1 257 people participated in the 48 training sessions in nine Member States, whilst 664 people took part in the webinars.
In total, 6 221 members of the target audiences had access to the project's materials. A total of 2 090 members of the target audience were trained during the project, and 285 of the target audience participated at the online project conference. The project reached public interest lawyers, environmental lawyers, environmental NGOs, academics, public authorities (e.g., Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Environment), students, judges and ombudsman offices.
A number of useful toolkits were completed, which were prepared in the national languages of 8 countries. These toolkits enable members of the public to challenge violations of environmental law. An interactive digital platform was established in Estonia, Hungary and Poland to provide legal assistance to the public online and to guide citizens in access to justice quickly. However, its “Ask A Lawyer” function was not used by target audiences.
On 6 March 2020, the European Commission published a Roadmap proposing an amendment of the EU Aarhus Regulation. This step followed a legal case brought by associated beneficiary ClientEarth in 2008. The case led to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee establishing that the European Union was not in compliance with the Aarhus Convention regarding access to justice against acts of EU bodies. On 14 October 2020, the Commission proposed an amendment to the Aarhus Regulation to ensure that environmental NGOs can challenge certain EU decisions that breach environmental laws.
The project has helped to advance cases in Austria, Estonia, France and Hungary. In Spain, the project coincided with a case at the Supreme Court, which declared that NGOs due to legal aid do not need to pay court fees even in case of losing. This “unprecedented judicial decision” had a large impact on access to justice and the project itself, due to the extended media focus and the opportunity to disseminate the relevant project results.
Furthermore, due to the project, a cooperation with a French MEP was built, which aided direct collaboration with the European Green Party. Through this collaboration, the project partners could directly feed draft amendments into EU policy considerations and provide legal advice.
The socio-economic impact study reported that the project contributed to increased knowledge and awareness about access to justice and the Aarhus Convention; increased dialogue and cooperation (networking) among the target group members and participating organisations; extended communication to a wider audience; and changed attitudes among the target groups. Thanks to the project, the partners established a network with journalists interested in justice issues. ClientEarth and Justice & Environment are often quoted in the EU media in stories concerning environmental law. Having closer ties with the legal profession has also benefitted all the participating organisations.