The Scottish Government has recently consulted on the question of whether to establish a specialist environmental court in Scotland. Consultation on an environmental court or tribunal was a manifesto pledge by the SNP in 2011.
The consultation closed on 10 June, so it is too early for the Government’s response. However, a number of those who submitted a response were critical of the consultation for being too narrow in scope. There are no proposals put forward by the Government for first-instance decision-making on matters such as planning and administrative appeals (e.g. to the Department for Planning and Environmental Appeals).
The UK environmental law association has pointed out that the UK’s obligations under the Aarhus Convention apply to all environmental cases. The Law Society of Scotland’s environmental sub-committee was also concerned about the limitation of the consultation to cases which come to court.
There have been calls for a more holistic review of all environmental decision-making in Scotland, to improve procedures and promote public participation throughout the process, from the first decision through to any statutory appeals body or court.
Under the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, there has already been a move towards specialist sheriffs appointed to deal with particular types of cases. There is now a new personal injury court, established under these new rules. Environment is a category which may be designated by the Lord President as one to be dealt with by specialist sheriffs. The Lord President also has powers to set up a specialist court within the Court of Session.
There have already been changes made to strengthen enforcement of environmental laws, following the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. Each region within Police Scotland has a specialist Wildlife Crime Liaison Officer and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service created a specialist environmental crime prosecution unit five years ago (in August 2011).
The aims behind reform of the civil system are to ensure that courts are adequately equipped to deal with environmental cases, so that they can be dealt with more efficiently. It is also hoped that the streamlined system would be more accessible, affordable and equitable for parties involved.