ERCS welcomes the decision to exempt Aarhus cases heard in the Court of Session from court fees, which can amount to thousands of pounds. This is a key demand of our advocacy manifesto, and is a positive step towards reducing barriers to accessing justice on the environment in judicial reviews and planning appeals.
Yet, it is disappointing that Aarhus cases in other courts (e.g. Sheriff Courts) are unaffected by this decision – with litigants still liable to pay fees.
Removing court fees is an important step to reducing legal expenses. However, much more needs to be done to make it affordable for all of us to uphold environmental laws in court and enforce our human right to a healthy environment. Scotland remains in breach of Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention, that access to justice must not be ‘prohibitively expensive’.
The Aarhus Convention’s governing institutions have now asked for an action plan, by 1 July, detailing how Scotland will fully meet their recommendations “to ensure that the allocation of costs in all court procedures is fair, equitable and not prohibitively expensive”. We look forward to reviewing the Scottish Government’s action plan to ensure full compliance with the Aarhus Convention by the deadline of 1 October 2024.
Our response to the consultation also supported the call to make all public interest litigation cases exempt from court fees. We are disappointed that the government has decided not to proceed with this at present. We will work with our civil society colleagues to include this in the future Human Rights (Scotland) Bill along with other measures to reduce the wider barriers to accessing justice in Scotland.