ClientEarth hails ‘huge’ Supreme Court judgement

The lawyer who spearheaded the legal action against the UK government over breaches of EU air pollution limits has hailed the Supreme Court’s “huge” judgement today (April 29) and called for action to tackle pollution from diesel vehicles.

ClientEarth's Alan Andrews emerges from the Supreme Court following the judgement this morning (April 29)

ClientEarth’s Alan Andrews emerges from the Supreme Court following the judgement this morning (April 29)

This morning the Supreme Court ordered Defra to produce and consult on a new air quality plan by the end of the year for the UK to meet EU objectives for nitrogen dioxide in all areas (see AirQualityNews.com story).

And, speaking outside the Court in Westminster after the judgement was handed down, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews told AirQualityNews.com that the verdict was “a win for the people in Britain who are breathing harmful and illegal levels of air pollution”.

Mr Andrews said: “I think this really is a landmark ruling. Mandatory orders requiring governments to take action are relatively rare. Mandatory orders requiring governments to take action by a certain time are almost unheard of in environmental cases. So this is a huge judgement in environmental terms and one that will have huge benefits for a large proportion of the population who are living in cities where they are breathing illegal level of air pollution day in, day out.”

It is now almost five years since ClientEarth’s legal battle against Defra on the issue first began, and Mr Andrews, who has been at the forefront of the case, said he was “relieved and delighted in equal measure” with today’s verdict.

Mr Andrews said: “It’s been a long road to get where we’ve got today but finally we have a court order which is going to force the next government to make air pollution a priority, so we’re going to see a new plan by the end of the year and we want to see an ambitious and comprehensive plan to address pollution from diesel vehicles.”

“It’s been a long road to get where we’ve got today but finally we have a court order which is going to force the next government to make air pollution a priority, so we’re going to see a new plan by the end of the year and we want to see an ambitious and comprehensive plan to address pollution from diesel vehicles.”

ClientEarth is one of a number of those which have repeatedly called for measures to “clean up the worst polluting diesel vehicles” such as congestion charging and a national network of low emission zones.

In its own response to today’s verdict, Defra also said that the “main reason NO2 breaches are so high across Europe” is because the Euro emission standards for diesel cars “failed to deliver expected reductions in NO2 in real life situations” adding that “the UK is pushing for action to address this as early as possible”.

And, while Mr Andrews said the ClientEarth team would celebrate the judgement, he emphasised that in reality “the hard work starts here”.

He added: “We need to see the plan, we need to respond to the public consultation, we need to provide ideas, and ultimately we need to make sure that the government complies with this order – and if they don’t we won’t hesitate to go back to court if that’s what it takes.”

Members of ClientEarth and the Healthy Air campaign celebrate today's Judgement outside the Supreme Court

Members of ClientEarth and the Healthy Air campaign celebrate today’s Judgement outside the Supreme Court

Election and awareness

The Supreme Court judgement was handed down today less than two weeks after the final hearing took place on April 16, and the verdict also comes during the campaign period just over a week ahead of the General Election on May 7.

Mr Andrews said he hoped the timing of today’s judgment would help put air quality higher up the political agenda as public awareness of the issue was changing and “people are very concerned and they want to see politicians taking action”.

He told AirQualityNews.com: “I think air pollution deserves to be much further up the agenda than it currently is. It is one of our biggest public health challenges. We’ve heard a lot of talk during the election about the burden and the deficit on the NHS, so hopefully what we’ll see in the next week all the political parties coming out and making a clear commitment to taking action explaining to the voters what policies they are going to take to clean up air pollution in the coming years.”

“We’ve heard a lot of talk during the election about the burden and the deficit on the NHS, so hopefully what we’ll see in the next week all the political parties coming out and making a clear commitment to taking action explaining to the voters what policies they are going to take to clean up air pollution in the coming years.”

What next?

Mr Andrews praised the work of the “big team at ClientEarth who have worked on this” and that of the organisation’s barristers, adding that the result could see other similar actions taken to national courts in EU member states regarding European law.

He said: “By taking this case all the way to the European Court of Justice, obviously we set EU law precedent and we hope that’s going to allow citizens across the EU to go before national courts and uphold their right to breathe clean air, but also to enforce other environmental laws.”

Defra

Also reacting to the Supreme Court’s verdict today, a spokeswoman for Defra said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans (since February 2014) to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible. It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.”

Since ClientEarth first brought the long-running case against the UK government, the European Commission has also separately launched legal proceedings against the UK over its ‘failure to cut excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide’, as well as against 16 other EU Member States (see AirQualityNews.com story).