Irish NGOs demand fairer access to justice

Threats of huge costs, targeting of individual NGO members, "damaging the public interest"

A coalition of 25 Irish environmental and community groups has urged UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to investigate Ireland's judicial system, which they claim violates the right of environmental and other NGOs to seek access to justice. The groups complain that, under Irish law, NGOs that lose a public interest court action can be asked to cover not only their own, but also the other side's legal costs.

The issue was highlighted last month when campaigner Clare Watson was told she might have to cover all costs when she lost a case challenging the Irish Environmental Protection Agency's decision to permit US firm Monsanto to experimentally grow genetically modified sugar beet (ENDS Daily 6 October). Ms Watson (whose first name we erroneously gave as Rachel in our last report) could face costs of up to I£400,000 (Ecu508,000), according to reports in the Irish press.

Such "terrifyingly large awards" amount to a form of "intimidation" that is deterring NGOs from acting in the public interest, Frank Corcoran of environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment (FiE) told ENDS Daily. NGOs in other European countries do not have to pay both sides' costs, he said, and in some cases are even given funding to enable them to perform their role in protecting the public interest.

Mr Corcoran said if NGOs were deterred from taking legal action, that "would be a total disaster for the environment in Ireland because our experience has been that the statutory bodies have not been acting in the interest of their brief. They have quite often been forced by the courts to protect things that they are charged with protecting."

FiE knows of no other case of NGOs raising the issue of access to justice with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The groups hope that Ms Robinson, a former president of Ireland, will be sympathetic to their cause.

As a barrister before her presidential term, Ms Robinson worked on several high-profile legal cases concerning access to justice. Speaking at the pan-European Århus conference in June, she argued in favour of a US system in which an NGO taking a public interest case cannot be made liable for legal costs.

A further worrying recent development according to Mr Corcoran, is that NGOs pursuing legal action against some organisations have been warned by them that they may seek to make individual NGO members liable for damages brought by a group. Concern about this kind of liability is likely to deter people from joining NGOs at all, Mr Corcoran said.

Follow Up:
Friends of the Irish Environment, tel: +353 1 402 3866.

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