Kate’s casebook: How not-for-profit legal group ClientEarth took the UK to task over air pollution levels

Last week not-for-profit legal group ClientEarth stormed to victory at Europe’s highest court, taking the UK government to task for failing to bring air pollution levels in line with EU standards.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) empowered the UK Supreme Court to take “any necessary measure” to ensure the UK meets targets set down in the EU Air Quality Directive.

The case has been on an exhaustive journey through the High Court, Court of Appeal (CoA) and the Supreme Court before culminating at the CJEU this month. Now it will return to the Supreme Court, which has the power to force the UK to comply and could even administer a fine.

Kate Beioley

The case could set key precedent for governments following the CJEU ruling that national courts can force governments to comply with international rules.

Case history

2011 – ClientEarth takes action against the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), arguing that 17 regions and cities including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff would not meet pollution limits set by the EU until after 2015 (13 December 2011). Defra is forced to admit it was breaching EU limits but High Court concludes it is a matter for the European Commission 

2012 – The CoA holds that the case should be re-examined but in May declines judicial review

2013 – Client Earth win a Supreme Court appeal and the Supreme Court referred questions over EU air quality to the CJEU

2014 – CJEU rules the Supreme Court can force the government to comply with EU limits 

Talking points

  • ClientEarth argued that under current plans the UK would not meet legal limits for nitrogen dioxide until after 2030 – 20 years after the original deadline
  • The case sets important precedent – it is the first ever ruling over the EU’s Air Quality Directive 2008 establishing sets of legal limits and target dates for reducing air pollutants
  • The CJEU interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries. It has one judge per EU country and is helped by nine ‘advocates general’
  • ClientEarth was set up by James Thornton in 2008. In 2013 he was credited as one of The Lawyer’s Hot 100
  • The case has been called “perhaps the longest running infringement of EU law in history” 

Do say:

“This is a key example of courts holding governments to account and isn’t that Blackstone Chambers silk fantastic?” 

Don’t say:

“Environmental law? Personally I prefer an oligarch battle …”

Give me more! 

Read this special report on the history of the ClientEarth case.