Environmental law

Environmental law is a huge subject. There has long been law protecting the environment, but recent interest in the environment has seen the law itself grow rapidly. People have also become more interested in actually using it to protect their rights.

Overall the law has (mostly) developed in favour both of the rights of individuals to a healthy environment, and of protecting and enhancing the natural environment for its own sake. People are sometimes surprised how useful the law can be. Some of the cases we have done were situations where people had given up hope of getting decisions changed, and the law brought new hope to them.

Where a decision has been made, authorities tend to be highly protective of them. Even where it has not been, the only way to get central or even local government to veer from a chosen course is often by judicial review.

A lot of the impetus for change within the UK has come from the European Community, where the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has consistently supported law protecting the natural and human environment. We took one of these cases - Lappel Bank - to the ECJ, and had decisions of the English High Court and Court of Appeal overturned in favour of the natural environment. Another, Wells, was a further milestone for the use of environmental impact assessments.

Our work in the "environmental" field has covered, for example, nature conservation (particularly habitat protection), environmental impact assessment (for developments ranging from Heathrow Terminal 5, to forestry in Scotland, to the local swimming pool), water resources regulation (particularly abstraction licensing), control of civilian and military aircraft noise, planning work, and other noise and environmental nuisance problems, such as odour from a manure heap and noisy railway platform announcements.

Much of this environmental work operates on principles of "public law", including the process of judicial review. This experience allows us to work on cases which are not to everyone's mind "environmental". For example, we have run a series of cases about the proper licensing of proposed trishaw (tricycle rickshaw) services. The relevant law mostly dates from the 19th century and the licensing of hackney carriages and stage coaches. But it has been fought to enable this non-polluting form of transport to operate in the UK. They are still restricted in the regions. But (like them or not!) as a result of our efforts they ply the streets of London.

The first "night flights" dispute, which related to the apparently dry issue of how the Secretary of State should specify the number of night flights permitted at London airports, resulted in a reduction of potential night flights at Heathrow by three quarters, with a corresponding reduction in night time disturbance for residents.

Besides judicial review and other types of proceedings, in the High Court, we also represent clients at public inquiries and hearings (in planning and similar matters), and take cases in the County Court and Magistrates Court. We also have an extensive specialist background in water resources work. We have successfully represented farmers whose land has been wrongly designated a 'Nitrate Vulnerable Zone' by the Environment Agency. Recently we represented an coalition of community groups at a planning inquiry into a proposed waste incinerator in Hertfordshire.

Because European law applies throughout the UK, we have also been involved in several cases in Scotland. Rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), now incorporated by the Human Rights Act 1998 into English law, are increasingly important in an environmental context. The ECHR guarantees, among other things, protection of life, respect for private and family life, home and correspondence, to fair hearings, to effective remedies, and to non-deprivation of property, all of which can be relevant to environmental cases.

In recent years the Aarhus Convention (formally known as the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) has had a substantial impact on environmental law by establishing the requirement for governments to ensure that bringing environmental cases is not "prohibitively expensive". Although there is still much work to be done to make environmental litigation properly affordable for ordinary individuals, the new regime which provides for "protective costs orders" limiting a claimant's liability for adverse costs is a significant improvement. Unless measures are in place to limit costs, no cases will be brought to protect the environment in the first place