A senior judge has said Ireland displayed "astonishing reluctance" to comply with EU environmental laws.
Judge Anthony Collins also said Ireland needed to improve access to the courts for activists and remove certain costs barriers. His comments come at a time when the Government is considering restrictions to make it more difficult to take legal challenges.
Ireland has been summoned repeatedly to European Court of Justice (ECJ) for long-running breaches of environmental legislation. Judge Collins sits on the ECJ, although doesn’t preside in any environmental law cases directly implicating Ireland.
The former Dublin-based barrister previously defended the State in environmental cases, and lectures on the subject at University College Cork - for which he recorded a podcast.
He said he made his comments in the recording in a personal capacity, but did not believe he was letting out any secrets about official attitudes to environmental law.
Judge Collins said were it not for the EU, Ireland would have had no effective environmental legislation. Even when EU directives took effect, Ireland fought against implementing them.
A prime early example was the failure to address illegal dumps, which the State argued for years was down to the actions of individuals. Other examples included the State’s failure to apply and enforce laws on septic tanks, habitats, nitrates and phosphates, urban wastewater treatment and environmental impact assessments.
“The list of non-compliance by Ireland of its environmental law obligations at EU level is incredibly long,” Judge Collins said.
He said Ireland seemed to pay attention only when taken to court by the European Commission and fined, as in the Derrybrien wind farm case where €8m in penalties has been paid and fines of €15,000 a day are still accumulating.
“It was only at that stage that the law was being taken seriously by the State,” he said.
“I think it’s fair to say there would have been a certain reluctance towards the idea of even applying some of these rules on the part of the State. That’s fairly evident from the defences that were put forward - an astonishing reluctance to comply with rules which the State signed up to. The State willingly went along with all of them and yet when it came to implementing and applying them, dragged its heels.”
He said citizens had been left to become “private law enforcers”, going to court to make the State apply the laws “often at considerable risk to their own financial safety”.
“Access to justice is a major issue in Ireland,” he said.
He said the threshold for deciding whether leave to challenge the State should be granted was low and could be raised, but once an applicant met that threshold, they should be indemnified against paying costs if they lost.
The Department of Environment was asked for a response but it commented only on the breaches of the Waste Directive referred to by Judge Collins, saying while historically Ireland may have been slow to implement policy, the country was now on course to meet all obligations.
Source – The Irish Independent