Ireland ratified the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention, on 20th June 2012.
The Aarhus Convention was adopted on 25th June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus at the Fourth Ministerial Conference in the 'Environment for Europe' process. It lays down a set of basic rules to promote the involvement of citizens in environmental matters and improve enforcement of environmental law. The Convention is legally binding on States that have become Parties to it. As the European Union is a Party, the Convention also applies to the EU institutions.
Ireland signed the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters on 25 June 1998.
The Three Pillars of the Convention:
The provisions of the Aarhus Convention are broken down into three pillars: access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice.
Access to Information
Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention concern environmental information.
Members of the public are entitled to request environmental information from public bodies and these bodies are obliged to maintain this information. This includes information on the state of the environment, policies and measures taken, or on the state of human health and safety, where this can be affected by the state of the environment.
Some information is exempt from release, for example where the disclosure would adversely affect international relations, national defence, public security, the course of justice, commercial confidentiality or the confidentiality of personal data. Information may also be withheld if its release could harm the environment, such as the breeding sites of rare species.
The Access to Information pillar has been implemented in the EU Directive 2003/4/EC on Public Access to Environmental Information and in Ireland by the European Communities (Access to Information on the Environment) Regulations 2007-2011.
Public Participation in Decision-Making
Under the Convention, the public has a right to participate in decision-making in environmental matters.
Arrangements should be made by public authorities to enable the public to comment on, for example, proposals for projects affecting the environment, or plans and programmes relating to the environment. Any subsequent comments are to be taken into consideration in the decision-making process. Information must be provided on the final decisions and the reasons for it. In the European Union, this part of the Aarhus Convention has been implemented by Directive 2003/35/EC on public participation (‘the Public Participation Directive’).
Several pieces of legislation have been used to transpose the Public Participation Directive into Irish law, including the integration of its requirements into Irish planning law and into legislation governing other environmental consents. For example, in the planning system, members of the public may submit observations on planning applications and may appeal planning decisions to An Bord Pleanála.
Access to Justice
Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention allows the public to access to justice, i.e. the right to seek redress when environmental law is infringed and the right to access review procedures to challenge public decisions that have been made without regard to the two other pillars of the Convention.
Article 9(1) deals with access to justice in respect of requests for environmental information. It has been implemented in Ireland by the European Communities (Access to Information on the Environment) Regulations 2007-2011. These regulations provide for an internal review mechanism in respect of information requests and assign the role of Commissioner for Environmental Information to the Information Commissioner. Further information on the work of the Commissioner for Environmental Information.
All members of the public are required to have access to review procedures to challenge decisions relating to the environment, made by public bodies or private persons. These procedures must be 'fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive'.
In Ireland, the requirement to provide a mechanism to challenge the substantive and procedural legality of a decision of a public body is ultimately met by way of Judicial Review. Further information on Judicial Review in Planning and Environmental matters
A number of pieces of legislation were introduced to assist Ireland in meeting its obligations under this pillar. One of the most significant legislative instruments, the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, introduced new costs rules to apply in certain cases, as well as a requirement that Judicial Notice be taken of the Convention.