Climate Change Litigation – A Vehicle for Changing Corporation and State Behaviour?

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By Johanna Reichel, Second Year, LL.B. Programme.

With only nine years left until climate change becomes irreversible,[1] stopping or slowing it down becomes increasingly crucial every day. One judicial instrument among others to combat climate change is climate change litigation which is gradually perceived to change climate-related policy outcomes and corporate behaviour.

The most prominent case when talking about climate change litigation is Urgenda.[2]In this case, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled in favour of 900 citizens assisted by the Urgenda Foundation and ordered the government to reduce greenhouse gas emission (GHG) by at least 25% by the end of 2020.[3] This “show horse” of climate change litigation is an almost perfect example of invoking human rights to force States to act ‘greener’.

Climate change litigation cases, especially ones relying on human rights, are increasing.[4] When the defendant is the respective government, the claimants can rely on human rights. Especially the right to life[5] and the right to effective remedies[6] have been used more often strategically and successfully by NGO’s and individuals.

Urgenda paved the way for other individuals, such as Ashgar Leghari, a farmer in Pakistan, to hold their governments accountable via litigation. Mr Leghari challenged the Pakistani government for its failure to carry out core provisions of the National Climate Change Policy of 2012. He succeeded and the government was ordered to implement a climate adaption plan.[7]

In 2018, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the authorities to implement action plans to address deforestation in the Amazon,[8] another major cause of climate change. As the ‘lung of the world’, the Amazon Forest stores large amounts of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and thereby increasing the world’s temperature.[9]

As demonstrated, climate change litigation is a tool to influence climate change law and policy. Nevertheless, as corporations are responsible for over 71% of global emissions,[10] holding them accountable is essential to stop climate change. However, as the provisions in the Human Right Charters are only addressed to public bodies, corporations cannot be held liable under them.[11] After failed attempts in the early 2000s,[12] the second wave of litigation rose with cases such as Huaraz Case[13] where Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer, is suing the German multinational energy company RWE in Germany to hold them accountable for their impact on climate change. He is basing his claim on the German Code of Civil procedure, yet the outcome must be awaited as SARS COVID-19 delayed the process.[14]

The precedent for climate change litigation against corporations was recently set in Milieudefensie v Shell.[15] In May 2021, Shell was ordered to cut their GHG by 2030 by 45%.[16] Relying on the Urgenda precedent and the fact that Shell’s GHG was twice as high as the Netherland’s, the court permitted the claim under the European Convention on Human Rights.[17]

Despite the fact that courts do not always rule in favour of the environment, corporations can be influenced to act ‘greener’ due to media coverage. ExxonMobile, for example, misled the public about climate change’s potential business risks to rationalize their behaviour by funding climate change denial front groups and spreading disinformation about climate science.[18] Despite winning the case, the subsequent public and financial scrutiny damaged their reputation, and their credit rating was downgraded.[19] In conclusion, climate change litigation is accurately seen as a tool to influence climate change policies and corporate behaviour. However, cases such as Urgenda and Milieudefensie, while demonstrating an ideal outcome, are rare and must be built upon. Milieudefensie, in particular, needs to be further observed as Shell will undoubtedly appeal the decision. Nevertheless, even unsuccessful cases can drive climate change action long term as public awareness is raised through media attention and a broad public discussion is forced.


[1] General Assembly, Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting (28 March 2019) < https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm> accessed 18 May 2021

[2] Supreme Court of the Netherlands, 20 December 2019, ECLI:NL:HR:2019:2007, English translation ECLI:NL:2019:2007

[3]’Climate Case – Urgenda’ (Urgenda, 2019) <https://www.urgenda.nl/en/themas/climate-case/> accessed 18 May 2021;  Supreme Court of the Netherlands, 20 December 2019, ECLI:NL:HR:2019:2007, English translation ECLI:NL:2019:2007

[4] Elisa de Wit, Sonali Seneviratne and Huw Calford, ‘Climate Change Litigation Update’ (Nortonrosefulbright.com, 2020) <https://nortonrosefulbright.com/en/knowledge/publications/7d58ae66/climate-change-litigation-update> accessed 24 May 2021

[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1848, art. 3; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, art. 6

[6] Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1848, art. 8; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, art. 2(3)

[7] Asghar Leghari v Federation of Pakistan (2015) W.P. No 25501/201

[8] Demanda Generaciones Futuras v. Minambiente 11001-22-03-000-2018-00319-01, para 3.

[9] Ross W. Gorte and Pervaze A. Sheikh ‘Deforestation and Climate Change’ (Congressional Research Service, 2010) < http://forestindustries.eu/sites/default/files/userfiles/1file/R41144.pdf> accessed 2 July 2021

[10] Tess Riley, ‘Just 100 Companies Responsible For 71% Of Global Emissions, Study Says’ (the Guardian, 2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change> accessed 18 May 2021

[11] European Commission, ‘How to report a breach of your rights’ https://ec.europa.eu/info/aid-development-cooperation-fundamental-rights/your-rights-eu/how-report-breach-your-rights_en accessed 26 May 2021

[12] Michal Nachmany and Joana Setzer, ‘Global trends in climate change legislation and litigation: 2018 snapshot’ (2018) Graham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment < https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Global-trends-in-climate-change-legislation-and-litigation-2018-snapshot-3.pdf> accessed 24 May 2021

[13] Agence France-Presse, ‘Peruvian farmer sues German energy giant for contributing to climate change’ The Guardian (14 November 2017) < https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/14/peruvian-farmer-sues-german-energy-giant-rwe-climate-change> accessed 24 May 2021

[14] Luciano Lliuya v. RWE AG Case No. 2 O 285/15 Essen Regional Court

[15] The Hague District Court, 26 May 2021, ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:5337, English translation ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:5339

[16] Roger Harrabin ‘Shell: Netherlands court orders oil giant to cut emissions’ BBC News (26 May 2021) < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-57257982> accessed 26 May 2021

[17] Milieudefensie v Shell [2019] District Court of The Hague < http://blogs2.law.columbia.edu/climate-change-litigation/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/non-us-case-documents/2019/20190405_8918_summons.pdf> accessed 26 May 2021

[18] Suzanne Goldenberg ‘ExxonMobil under investigation over claims it lied about climate change risks’ The Guardian (New York, 5.11.2015) <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/05/exxonmobil-investigation-climate-change-peabody> accessed 8 July 2021

[19] Megan Darby, ‘Shareholder Pressure Mounts On Downgraded Exxonmobil’ (the Guardian, 2016) <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/28/shareholders-pressure-mounts-on-downgraded-exxonmobil-climate-change> accessed 25 May 2021

Outstanding Student Representative of the Year

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Congratulations to LLB (Hons) Law student, Danielle Newton, for receiving the title of ‘Outstanding Rep of the Year’ for the Business and Law faculty. We caught up with Danielle about her journey as part of our Student Spotlight 2021.

Why did you want to become a student rep?

“My initial interest came after my first year at the university. Once my confidence grew, I wanted to be a voice for those who went unnoticed, the students who find it difficult to say how they feel and bring to light any issues they are having. I have been that type of student for years and I know exactly how it feels. I knew during a pandemic that the student representative programme could be the perfect asset for getting to know peers and staff alike. I felt the need to still maintain that contact irrespective of all the restrictions we were facing in the world. My hope was to make certain that my faculty’s year felt like a community!

Overall, Student representatives are of significant importance in encompassing the idea of acting on behalf of one body to promote change and success for all.”

What have you gained as a student rep?

“I have developed exceptional communication skills through volunteering as a student representative. The role itself relies on gaining feedback from peers to better establish a reliable working environment. Thus, I actively communicate with staff members and students to be a voice of reason and representation. All of this has been a great topic for conversation in recent interviews.

The most thoroughly rewarding part of the role was being able to make change for my cohort. Whether that be a deadline change, timetable change, teaching addition etc. Any small amount of change would bring with it great satisfaction. Alongside this, the programme gave me the opportunity to speak to various people. I have made many friends despite the virtual restrictions consequently adding to my university experience as a whole.”

What were the challenges you faced over the past year?

“It comes as no surprise that it has been an unprecedented year and with that came many challenges both in and out of university. I found adapting to virtual life hard. Communicating with lots of people in my role but never seeing faces was very strange! I recently came onto campus and have spotted a few of my lecturers who probably wouldn’t know who I am.

The main challenges lied with the shift in academic year dates. This change in schedule was difficult for students to adapt too – myself included. However, it has all been a learning curve and all the students and staff have worked exceptionally hard to try and get the most out of the academic year.”

What have you learnt?

“Foremost what I have learnt from my university experience is the power afforded to those who try hard and persevere to succeed. It may seem a silly concept but, what breaks away from those students who are academically gifted and those who try hard is that university doesn’t discriminate. One of my favourite quotes that I would think about when I competed in Athletics was “all men are created equal, some work harder in pre-season.” This concept is similar for university and you will be recognised for your efforts.

I felt like a slow burner here. I wasn’t academically gifted and I was so shy when walking onto campus for the first time. I had convinced myself I would drop out in the first 5 minutes. But I kept going and once I was ready, I was able to make the most out of my university experience. My advice would be, seize every opportunity given to you, don’t take life too seriously, enjoy the small things and most of all remember – fast success builds your ego but, slow success builds your character.”

Students launch legal directory to help aspiring lawyers

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Lawtask is an online legal directory designed to help future lawyers bridge the gap between leaving university and securing their first positions in their legal careers. Lawtask allows students to gain professional skills and experience, in their pursuit of a legal career. This is achieved through the consolidation of relevant and practical opportunities and resources.

Set up in 2020, Lawtask was founded by Alessia Cucciniello, recent UWE Bristol Law graduate, and Kieran Woodhouse, LPC LLM student at UWE Bristol. Both have ambitions of becoming solicitors and have also been involved with the UWE Bristol Law Society, with Kieran being elected Vice-President.

Formed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Lawtask was a response to the competitive legal sector that students are faced with when leaving University. Alessia and Kieran launched Lawtask to enable law students to stand out through providing knowledge sharing and useful tools to give students a great place to start in the pursuit of their legal careers.

“Our aim was to bridge the gap between graduating university and securing your first legal job. There are plenty of resources out there to choose from, and our aim was to collect them in an easily accessible platform that could help students gain essential skills to stand out.”

Alessia

They explored the concept of virtual learning and discovered the huge variety of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that applied to legal students. These courses demonstrate transferable skills and a drive to seek personal improvement that employers are truly looking for.

“One thing we realised when searching for these and other relevant experiences, was that there is no single place for law students to discover the opportunities open to them. This then sparked the concept for Lawtask.”

Kieran

The platform is still in its early stages, however, the pair have seen great success so far. The feedback they have received from both students and staff at UWE has been hugely positive and led to consistent audience growth and user interaction.

“Our hope for the future is to be able to grow and provide more opportunities for students. We would like to expand our platform and start offering real work experience that graduates can use on their job applications, in order to truly help them succeed. We are still working on this, but we hope that we will be able to do this very soon.”

Alessia

“My ultimate hope for Lawtask is that it becomes the norm for law students to consider looking outside the traditional scope of experience and learning and that Lawtask can be a place that can guide people to something beneficial for them.”

Kieran

We asked them both for their advice to current students and here’s what they said:

“My advice to current students is to make good use of all the resources and opportunities offered by UWE and engage with the societies. Not only this will enhance your student experience, but it might also give you essential skills that you will carry with you and shape your future career.”

Alessia

“In my personal experience, so many people emphasise their degree being the absolute evidence of their ability to do anything and so often people forget the importance of personal development. With that in mind, my advice would be to take the opportunities that you have available to you either within your subject or elsewhere because now is the time to explore them. Who knows, you may find a whole new career aspiration.”

Kieran

You can visit Lawtask here.

My student representative journey at Bristol Law School

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Blog by Sarah Barnes, Bristol Law School LLB (Hons) recent graduate, as part of the FBL Student Spotlight 2021.

Why I became a representative

I had always wanted to be a representative during my time at UWE Bristol but I felt a bit nervous to do so. However, when I saw the opportunity to become a Law Lead Department Representative I knew I had to apply. I enjoy helping people and I wanted to enable student voices to be heard throughout their time at UWE.

What I gained and learnt

I have learnt so much at UWE, more than I ever would have if I went anywhere else. Firstly, I gained a lot of confidence. I was always a little nervous to speak out for example in lectures, but being in this role I have had to overcome this as I have had to network lots. Luckily I have met lots of friendly and lovely people and such a variety of staff and students across the University.

I also gained team working skills by working with other Lead Department Representatives and staff, and was able to communicate news to them and resolve issues that arose.

On my course, I have learnt so much such as negotiation and mediation. I have also helped to advise real clients through the UWE Bristol Law Clinic. The experiences I have gained have been invaluable.

The challenges I faced

I have faced the challenge of studying from home over the past year. It was a big change from being in the lecture theatres and workshop rooms to being in your bedroom! I overcame this change by ensuring I organised my time, created a suitable study space and also tried to get more involved than I ever did before to ensure that being online did not negatively affect my studies.

The importance of Student Representatives

It is really important to represent students so that they feel that they are being listened to. Furthermore, by having this role, we are the middleman in speaking to lecturers about what students believe is working and what they feel may not be working as well. This role was highly important whilst having blended learning this year as new ways of learning had different levels of effectiveness.

As a Representative, I was able to communicate feedback from students to the staff and helped adapt the module to suit the students’ needs.

My advice

If you are considering becoming a representative, do it! Apply now! Fear can always try to eat you up, but you never know that you may get the role you really want. You have to be determined and resilient to achieve great things. Being a representative has really helped my leadership and team working skills in order to try my best and help the law students at UWE.

The staff here at UWE are always willing to do their best to help you. As a representative, I had meetings weekly with staff and that was truly invaluable. We were able to communicate what was happening on both sides and we would be able to resolve issues much quicker by working together.

“Too big to fail and too big to jail?” Are some corporations’ untouchable to the UK regulators?

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Blog by Amber Egan, UWE Bristol Law alumni

Public trust in business has been tarnished by the disclosure of fraudulent, dishonest and harmful activity by banks and corporations, such as the fall of Arthur Andersen and Libor Scandal.[1] The extent of corporate crime was brought to light during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, there was vast illegal conduct of many financial institutions who were then bailed out by the taxpayer. This was the turning point for the regulators and governments, it highlighted that tighter controls and sanctions were needed for corporations.

For corporations to be held accountable the prosecution had to prove that a person had “the directing mind and will of the company,” which is known as the identification doctrine.[2] This doctrine failed at many hurdles, including ignoring the complexity of modern corporations, the inequality between different sized corporations and individuals, but also, a lack of evidence for prosecution. Due to such ambiguity surrounding responsibility in larger complex corporations, it may be impossible to show ‘a controlling mind and will’. The identification doctrine can cause inequality between how ‘the untouchable executives’ and the ‘low-hanging fruit’ are treated, lower-level employees can be easy scapegoats for large corporations.[3] Following the Libor scandal, several low-level traders were prosecuted such as UBS trader Tom Hayes[4] whereas UBS could not be held criminally liable due to difficulty in fulfilling the requirements of the doctrine.

To try and address the issues with the identification doctrine, the UK introduced a series of statutes using the failure-to-prevent module to strengthen the approach to corporate economic crime. The new module was employed in both The Bribery Act 2010 and The Criminal Finances Act 2017, the offences can be classed as strict liability as the only defence available to corporations is a due-diligence defence, where the corporation can prove that ‘adequate procedures’ were in place to prevent such conduct making prosecution straight forward.[5]  The results from charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) are disappointing, the failure-to-prevent bribery offence[6]has only had two convictions since the introduction in 2010. The regulators have mainly employed DPAs as punishment instead of pushing for conviction. Unfortunately, the enforcement strategy is often determined by the size and the importance of the corporation, there has only been two convictions using the failure-to-prevent module, both being SMEs.[7] The regulators and even the judges fear prosecuting corporations that are ‘too big to fail’ and as a result it can be argued they alter the rules to fit the corporation making them ‘too big to jail.’

The SFO is not the only regulator in the UK with power, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) can take action such as suspending or withdrawing a firm’s authorisation, issuing civil fines, injunctions, restitution orders and insolvency orders, however breaches rarely amount to anything but fines.[8] The FCA has the power under the Money Laundering Regulations 2017[9] to criminally prosecute a person or organisation it suspects of not putting in place sufficient safeguards against money laundering. The FCA has not brought a single criminal prosecution against a firm or individual for breaching its new Regulations which came into effect in 2017.[10]

The UK introduced DPAs in 2013,[11] the driving force for legislating DPA’s is the difficulty in achieving successful prosecutions of corporate offenders, however they have had limited application. They often include provisions for corporations to pay large fines, along with improving their conduct and governance through an external monitor. The aim is to foster cooperation between corporations and regulators by encouraging self-reporting in aid of leniency.[12]  Even though DPAs are available to be used by all enforcement agencies, so far they have only been used by the SFO for nine agreements and have largely been for bribery offences.[13] Whereas since 2013, the US has entered into 280 DPAs for numerous financial crimes. [14] Some positives of DPAs are that funds and resources are saved by avoiding a lengthy court trial especially where a corporation self-reports and it limits the uncertainty of a trial. One of the weaknesses with a DPAs is inconsistency between large and SMEs. SMEs often commit much less severe crimes, but as they do not pose a risk to the economy when they go bankrupt, a prosecution can pushed for. Another weakness is the deterrence given with a DPA, HSBC is a repeat offender when it comes to financial crime so there is a risk of financial penalties from DPAs becoming “a cost of doing business, lessening the impact and the effectiveness of DPAs.”[15]

The regulators principal argument for the move towards DPA’s is the risk of the collateral consequences caused by a prosecution.[16] When a corporation is convicted it would bring collateral consequences on potentially innocent employees and shareholders, along with possible catastrophic effects for the industry, the stock market and the knock-on effects for the wider community.

For example, HSBC being a systematically important institution meant that it was untouchable by regulators, the fear of the damage to the global economy was far greater than the need for prosecution in the UK and US. As a result, they were offered a DPA and controversially kept their banking licence. Many corporations have essential government contracts so prosecutors are careful to avoid penalties leading to automatic debarments that would affect government operations where government contracts are essential the collateral consequences would be severe, such as military contracts.[17]

Prosecutors seeking to deter corporate crime should adjust their strategies to focus more on charging culpable individuals, as there has been very little prosecution activity for individuals also. However, prosecution is only a benefit if the correct individuals are being identified, as discussed above, lower-level employees are made scapegoats by senior executives.

Does the Senior Managers Certificate Regimer light at the end of the tunnel?

The SMCR aims to encourage a culture of staff at all levels taking personal responsibility for their actions and making sure staff clearly demonstrate where responsibility lies.[18] This makes the issue of identification much easier as responsibilities of senior managers will be clearly set out and, should something in their area of responsibility go wrong, they can be personally held accountable. For the senior managers regime, firms must provide documentation to the FCA to show responsibilities of senior managers and their suitability for their jobs.[19]

The certification regime is for those that are not senior managers but ‘whose role means it’s possible for them to cause significant harm to the firm or customers’.[20] A firm should not permit an employee to carry out certain functions unless it has issued them with a certificate to say that they are fit and proper for the specific function.

The FCA has extensive powers allowing them to issue penalties, custodial sentences and prohibitions[21] for breaches of the SMCR including breaches of the Code of Conduct[22] and breaches of The Fit and Proper rules,[23] set out in the FCA handbook.[24] However, as seen before just because the FCA has the power to impose custodial sentences does not mean they will, the FCA has only imposed fines under the SMCR as yet.


[1] Ministry of Justice Corporate Liability for Economic Crime Call for Evidence (Ministry of Justice: London, 2017) p3

[2] Tesco Supermarkets LTD v Nattrass [1972] AC 153

[3] Nick Werle, ‘Prosecuting Corporate Crime When Firms Are Too Big to Jail: Investigation, Deterrence, and Judicial Review’ (2019) 128 Yale L J 1366, p1412

[4] R v Tom Alexander William Hayes [2015] EWCA Crim 1944.

[5] A Ashworth, ‘A new generation of omissions offences?’ (2018) 5 Crim. L.R. 354 p.4.

[6] The Bribery Act 2010 s7.

[7] There have been two convictions under s7 of the Bribery Act 2010 for failing to prevent bribery, while under s45 and s46 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017 there has been no convictions to date. The government is unable even to specify the number of companies who fail to file tax returns or the amount of penalties collected for late filing.<https://leftfootforward.org/2021/04/our-watchdogs-are-toothless/ > accessed 29th April 2021

[8] The Financial Conduct Authority ‘Enforcement’ (FCA,2016) <https://www.fca.org.uk/about/enforcement> accessed 29th June 2020

[9] This replaced the Money Laundering Regulations 2007

[10] Rozi Jones ‘FCA yet to prosecute under 2017 money laundering rules’ (Financial Reporter, January 2020) <https://www.financialreporter.co.uk/regulation/fca-yet-to-prosecute-under-2017-money-laundering-rules.html#:~:text=For%20over%20two%20years%20the,up%20to%20two%20years’%20imprisonment.> accessed 5th August 2020

[11] Crime and Courts Act 2013 s45 Schedule 17

[12] F Mazzacuva, ‘Justifications and purposes of negotiated justice for corporate offenders: deferred and non-prosecution agreements in the UK and US systems of criminal justice’ (2014) 78 J. Crim. L. 249

[13] SFO have come to nine agreements since the introduction of DPAs in 2013.

[14] Gibson Dunn, ‘2019 Year-end update on corporate non-prosecution agreement and deferred prosecution agreements’ (Jan 2020) <https://www.gibsondunn.com/2019-year-end-npa-dpa-update/> accessed 4th August 2020

[15] Editorial, “Too Big to Indict”, New York Times, 12 December 2012, quoted in Reilly, “Justice Deferred is Justice Denied” (2015) Brigham Young University Law Review 101, 103.

[16] Nick Werle, ‘Prosecuting Corporate Crime When Firms Are Too Big to Jail: Investigation, Deterrence, and Judicial Review’ (2019) 128 Yale L J 1366, p1378

[17] For example, Rolls Royce, Airbus and G4S all have government contracts.

[18] Press Release, ‘FCA outlines proposals to extend the Senior Managers and Certification Regime to all financial services firms’ (FCA, July 2017) <https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-outlines-proposals-extend-senior-managers-certification-regime-all-firms> accessed 8th April 2020

[19] Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 Part 4 s29

[20] O Jackson, ‘Primer: the senior Managers certification regime’ (2018) International Financial Review 1

[21] Lexis PSL ‘FCA and PRA investigations, enforcement and discipline overview’ (Lexis Nexis, 2020) <https://www.lexisnexis.com/uk/lexispsl/corporatecrime/document/393813/583N-GY51-F18F-M1K2-00000-00/FCA-and-PRA-investigations,-enforcement-and-discipline—overview> accessed 29th April 2020.

[22] Referred to as COCON

[23] Referred to as FIT

[24] Examples of penalties include J Staley CEO of Barclays for breaching COCON 2.1.2 fined £321,200 by the FCA, Guillaume Adolph a former Deutsche trader for breaches of Principle 5 and FIT fined £180,000 and a prohibition by the FCA. See Financial Conduct Authority ‘Fines 2018’ (FCA,2020) <https://www.fca.org.uk/news/news-stories/2018-fines> accessed 29th April 2020.

Combating environmental degradation in Nigeria through the recognition of the Rights of Nature

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By Cleverline T Brown, PhD student, a member of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Research Group.

Environmental degradation has increasingly plagued the human and natural environment especially since the discovery of petroleum in Nigeria. The right to a clean and healthy environment although provided for in the Constitution,[1] has been seen to be non-justiciable[2] except by alternative pathways such as through the application of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) [3] or in a foreign court. It is also a fact that environmental pollution cases have been lost due to technicalities.[4] This has emboldened some petroleum sector operators to continue bad environmental practices. Hence the need for alternative ways to combat environmental degradation from bad environmental practices such as the recognition of the rights of nature.

Global development of rights of nature

The concept of the rights of nature is an emerging field that is gradually being recognised by countries around the world. While the rights of human victims of environmental harm are protected under human rights law,[5] other victims of environmental harm such as nature and natural resources, exist and have been left behind by policy and law-making thereby rendering them invisible and silenced in the search for justice.[6] Rights of nature are rights that nature and natural resources possess, as distinct from the right of humans to a healthy environment. It can be a reformulation and expansion of existing human rights and duties in the context of environmental protection.[7] In some jurisdictions like India, New Zealand, Ecuador, Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, nature is accorded human status.[8] This implies the right to be protected just like human beings under human rights laws; and the right to enforce such rights under the law.[9] Stone noted that until the rightless thing receives its right, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those who are holding the rights at the time.[10] More countries are legally recognising the rights of nature in their domains. In February 2021, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit recognised the Magpie River, a 3000km (186 miles) waterway in the cote Nord region of the Canadian province of Quebec, as a legal person.[11] Some of the sources of the rights of nature in these jurisdictions include case law,[12] the Constitution and other legal instruments.[13]

Rights of Nature in Nigeria

The non-justiciability of the environmental rights provisions in the Constitution of Nigeria has prompted victims of environmental harm to seek access to courts in pursuit of justice, through other pathways.[14] While this effort has yielded some positive results, it has not yielded an express pronouncement on the rights of nature and natural resources per se to be protected, specifically in Nigeria. When environmental harm occurs, the rights sought to be protected are the rights of the human victims alone and these rights do not extend to the protection of nature. Recognition of the rights of nature in Nigeria can expand the definition of ‘victims of environmental harm’ and extend the frontiers on which environmental degradation can be combatted. The closest to rights of nature practiced in Nigeria is the designation of protected areas. These areas include forest reserves and plantations, national parks, nature reserves and gazetted forests.[15] This implies that the areas so designated are protected against farming, hunting, trapping, timber cutting and other human activities. It does not, however, protect these natural resources and rivers from the effect of oil spills and other negative impacts of petroleum sector activities.[16] This does not also give the protected areas personhood or the right to enforce the protected status. Legally recognising the rights of nature in Nigeria could be a game-changer in the move to combat environmental harm especially from petroleum sector operations. It is argued that an outright pronouncement on the rights of nature and natural resources can provide an alternative option in the fight against environmental degradation from environmental harm and easy access to courts to enforce those rights.

Challenges of Rights of Nature

While some gains have been made by the countries that have taken the lead in establishing rights of nature,[17] challenges remain on the full realisation of the effect of the rights of nature. First, it is difficult to assess how far the courts will go on the issue of enforcement of such rights. This is because the concept of rights of nature has not been rigorously tested before the courts to establish precedents.[18] Second, like every other law, the challenges of compliance and enforcement remain due to the lack of political will to enforce compliance with the laws.[19] Third, governments still place the exploitation of natural resources for gains over the protection of nature and natural resources. This is because often, the government relies on the proceeds from the exploitation of natural resources to provide basic amenities for its citizens.[20] Fourth, individuals and small businesses fear that such rights will lead to a multiplicity of lawsuits threatening their businesses and livelihood.[21] Fifth, it is believed that existing legal and statutory frameworks adequately cater to protect nature and new laws stipulating new rights are not required.[22]

Conclusion

The significance of the attention on the rights of nature is vital to the fight against global environmental degradation. If more countries recognise the rights of nature, it could put a check on how nature is interacted with by human beings because these rights will be put into consideration in such interactions. Such considerations can be in form of complying with environmental regulations, policies and standards. Therefore, it is contended that if compliance and enforcement of environmental laws are effectively observed, the environmental rights of human beings and nature can easily be realised.

Recognition of the rights of nature could lead to stronger natural resource laws. Legally recognised rights of nature and the human right to a healthy environment can work simultaneously to promote effective compliance and enforcement because humans have an interconnectedness with the natural world and should acknowledge the rights of nature to exist, persist and maintain its vital cycles.[23] The legal recognition of the rights of nature by Nigeria can be an effective legal tool to save the Nigerian environment from a gradual but steady decline.[24]


[1] S 20 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 requires the government of Nigeria to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria and s 33 (1) which guarantees the right to life of every citizen of Nigeria.

[2] See s 6 (6) c of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 which essentially prevents any enquiry into any issue or question as to whether any act of omission by any authority or person or as to whether any law or any judicial decision is in conformity with the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy set out in Chapter II of this Constitution (under which a protected environment is provided for in the Constitution).

[3] Articles 4 which provides for the right to life and 24 which provides the right to a general satisfactory environment.

[4]  Such as standing and loopholes in the law. See Oronto Douglas v Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited & Ors (1998) LPELR-CA/L/143/97 Law Pavilion Electronic Law Report- Court of Appeal. Some of the oil pollution related cases arising from some Ogoni communities fall into this category.

[5] EO Popoola, ‘Moving the Battlefields: Foreign Jurisdictions and Environmental Justice in Nigeria’ <https://items.ssrc.org/…environments/moving-the-battlefields-foreign-jurisd…> accessed 19 August 2019.

[6] It has been argued that other victims of environmental harm exist and have been left behind by policy and law-making thereby rendering them invisible and silenced in the search for justice. See M Hall, Environmental Harm: The Missing Victims?, vol 90 (Centre for Crime and Justice Studies 2012) 1.

[7] D Shelton, ‘Human Rights, Environmental Rights, and the Right to Environment’ (1991) 28(1) Stanford Journal of International law 103, 117.

[8] Examples are New Zealand’s Whanganui River was granted rights of personhood in 2017, India’s Ganges River, Article 71 of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador, essentially provides that nature has the right to integral respect for its existence and the maintenance and regenerations of its life’s cycle’s structure, functions and evolutionary processes. Examples of jurisdictions that have also recognised the legal rights of nature include Bolivia (Law of the Rights of Mother Earth and the Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well 2012); Columbia (A 2018 Supreme Court decision held the Columbian Amazon to be a subject of rights based on the Columbian Constitutional’s Courts ruling that Atrato River had legal rights to be protected, conserved and restored); India (The 2018 Uttarakhand High Court decision declaring the animal kingdom to legal entities with rights, duties and liabilities of a living person); and the United States of America where Tamaqua Borough in Pennsylvania recognised the rights of natural communities and ecosystems in a 2006 ordinance) see G Chapron, Y Epstein and JV Lopez-Bao, ‘A Rights Revolution for Nature’ (2019) 363(6434) Science 1392, 1393

[9] CD Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment (Oxford University Press 2010) 264.

[10] ibid 3.

[11] J Kestler-D’Amours, ‘This River in Canada is now a ‘Legal Person’’ (2021) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/3/this-river-in-canada-now-legal-person> accessed 12 April 2021.

[12] As in the Indian cases of Maharaj Singh v Indian Oil Corporation (1999) A. I. R. 81; M. I. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu M.C. [1999] A.I.R.  SC 2468; Mehta v Kamal Nath (1997) 1 S.C.C. 388.

[13] Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador 2008 Chapter 7, Articles 71, 72 and 73; Te Urewera Act 2014 of New Zealand; Constitution of Brazil 1993.

[14] Popoola (n 5).

[15] OI Imasuen, JN Oshodi, TUS Onyeobi, ‘Protected areas for environmental sustainability in Nigeria’ (2013) 17 (1) Journal of Applied Science and Environmental Management 53, 56.

[16] AP Onyena and K Sam, ‘A Review of the Threat of Oil Exploitation to Mangrove Ecosystem: Insights from Niger Delta, Nigeria (2020) 22 Global Ecology and Conservation 1, 3.

[17] S Borràs, ‘New Transitions from Human Rights to the Environment to the Rights of Nature.’ (2016) 5(1) Transnational Environmental Law 113, 143.

[18] CR Giraldo, ‘Does Nature Have Rights? Successes and Challenges in Implementing the Rights of Nature in Ecuador’ (2013) <https://constitutionnet.org/news/does-nature-have-rights-successes-and-challenges-implementing-rights-nature-ecuador> accessed 4 December 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] OA Houck, ‘Noah’s Second Voyage: The Rights of Nature as Law’ (2017) 31(1) Tulane Environmental Law Journal 1, 29.

[22] C McDonough, ‘Will the River Ever Get a Chance to Speak? Standing Up for the Legal Rights of Nature’ (2020) 31(1) Villanova Environmental Law Journal 143, 161.

[23] Borràs (n 17) 143.

[24] DR Boyd, The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World (ECW Press 2017) 280.

Professor Nicholas Ryder wins Anti Financial Crime Award

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Congratulations to UWE Bristol Law School’s Professor in Financial Crime, Nicholas Ryder, on receiving the Themis ‘Strides Against Money Laundering’ award at their recent Anti Financial Crime Awards virtual ceremony on Tuesday 23 March 2021. This award promotes the fight against Money Laundering by recognising the efforts of an individual or organisation making significant progress in the prevention of illicit monies entering the banking systems.

“This award reflects Nic’s innovative research and commitment to encouraging collaboration between academic and professional policy-making arenas, a fantastic achievement, well done.”

Rob Thompson, The London Institute of Banking & Finance, judge of the Strides Against Money Laundering award

“I’m very humbled and very honoured to accept the award from Themis. It was very unexpected so I’d like to thank the company and the judging panel. I think it goes to show the importance of research that academics can conduct and how we can positively contribute towards tackling the threat posed by financial crime.”

Professor Nicholas Ryder

Themis is a purpose led organisation committed to reducing the global impact of financial crime. As a bridge between the public and private sectors, we want to highlight the fantastic work, best practices, achievements and determination of individuals and organisations in their contribution in the fight against financial crime.

You can watch the full awards ceremony video and find out more information on the Themis website.

Criminal Justice in ‘Crisis’: Covid-19 and the Right to a Jury Trial

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Blog by Dr. Edward Johnston, Senior Lecturer in Law at UWE Bristol.

In November the back log of outstanding cases in the criminal courts of England and Wales stood at 457,518. According to the same Sky News report, this is some 100,000 more than February 2020. Of the near half a million outstanding cases, just under 54,000 are for cases to be heard in the Crown Court and the remaining 403,000 cases are set to be heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

Moving forward, the picture looks even more bleak. Crest Advisory, who specialise in predictions and analytical models concerning criminal justice suggest that by 2024, there could well be 580,000 cases outstanding in the magistrates’ court and 195,000 outstanding in the Crown Court.

It is clear that something has to give to solve this ‘crisis’ – a word often used to describe the current state of criminal justice. However, is ‘crisis’ the correct term? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis as ‘ a time when a problem, a bad situation or an illness is at its worst point’. From the Crest predictions, it is clear we have not even begun to hit the ‘worst point.’ Furthermore, a crisis can be defined as a period of ‘great danger’ – well, criminal justice was in a state of crisis long before Covid-19; from cuts to police officers and PCSOs to court closures throughout England and Wales. The Guardian reported in January 2019 that almost 50% of magistrates’ courts have closed and according to a report by the National Audit Office, the government plan to close another 77 courts by 2025/26. Is it no wonder that the backlog of cases is so large and continuing to grow.

As ever, it is the right to trial by jury that is the first fundamental freedom to be attacked. It always is. In 2018, Labour MP Ann Coffey suggested that we ‘do away with juries in rape trials’ in order to allow a trained judge, sitting alone decide the case Just this week, Simon Jenkins, writing for the guardian suggested that we abolish jury trials as the huge backlog of cases has allowed us to ‘reform our archaic and irrelevant court rituals.’ Jenkins suggests that after 3 terms as a juror he is convinced that they are a ‘costly indulgence’  and ‘have nothing to do with justice except often distort it.’ Additionally, he claims that his final case was a ‘blatant’ attempted murder case which involved young lawyers making mistakes, before the judge declared all relevant evidence ‘prejudicial’ and instructed the jury to acquit the defendant – quite how this has anything to do with the role or function of the jury is beyond me. But it perhaps goes some way to explain his misunderstanding about the role and its importance.

It came as no surprise this week to see Labour call for alterations to the jury system. Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, called for juries to be reduced to 7 people to ‘stem the gravest crisis in the justice system since WWII‘. As highlighted above, Crown Court cases (not all will be heard by a jury because of guilty pleas) make up a fraction of this current and predicated backlog of cases. This is a marked shift from Lammy, who in his 2017 Review into the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system found that the ‘jury system was fit for purpose’ (see page 41). The system was already in a state of crisis – why suggest amendments now?

Furthermore, why would 7 people allow the backlog to be cleared any quicker – they still have to deliberate and properly consider the evidence they have heard and therefore are not likely to make the process any swifter. And if they are not going to be quicker – they will not help tackle the backlog. Writing in 2021 Dr. Hannah Quirk outlined the importance of juries and proffered a way forward to tackle the growing backlog. In her Criminal Law Review Editorial, she suggested that ‘juries may provide an important safety net against unfair prosecutions. The difficulties are immense but alternative measures should be tried, such as using university facilities or a purpose-built site. If convention centres could be turned into field hospitals in a few weeks, creating a functioning courtroom cannot be impossible. The medical profession is discovering unexpected long-term side-effects of Covid-19; the criminal justice system should ensure that the right to trial by jury is not another casualty of the crisis.’

If the criminal justice system was adequately funded (to provide opportunities to pursue a career in the CPS or defence professions), if courts were not closed and therefore unable to hear cases then that would provide a way forward to tackle the crisis. Perhaps the government ought to look to re-open the closed buildings they have not sold off or as Quirk suggests, repurpose existing buildings to be suitable for criminal trials.

Amending trial by jury will do little to reduce the backlog of cases, in fact it would be the start of a slippery slope and the death knell to jury trials in England. Following Quirk’s suggesting again,  we need to ensure that jury trials are not another casualty of the current crisis.

The Polluter Pays Principle: The only Principle that can limit aviation emissions (if we do it right)

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This blog was written by Mandy Beck, an LLM in Environmental Law and Sustainable Development student at UWE Bristol.

Today, an airplane takes off approximately every 0.8 seconds somewhere around the globe.[1] The impact of the aviation sector on the climate is enormous. Stefan Gössling, professor for sustainable transport at Lund/Linnaeus University, Sweden, even states that ‘on an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation’.[2] Globally, the aviation sector contributes a total of 2.5%[3] to all anthropogenic[4] CO2 emissions, making it a significant contributor to global warming. Often undiscussed, however, are the non-CO2 effects, meaning those effects resulting from e.g. particles, water vapour, and nitrogen oxides. Together with these non-CO2 effects, aviation contributes to global warming by 5%.[5]

The International Air Transport Association estimates that the demand for flights is going to double by 2037.[6] The decision-makers in the aviation sector thereby face the challenge of making aviation climate-neutral. In 2012, former European Commissioner for Climate Action in the European Commission, Connie Hedegaard stated that the ‘Polluter pays is the only principle that can limit aviation emissions’.[7]

The Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) reflects an idea that is taught to us since our childhood: ‘Clean up after yourself’.[8] Due to this principle, the costs of pollution should be allocated to the actor who caused them.[9] The PPP is implemented by using market-based measures (MBMs), such as levies, emission trading (such as the EU Emission Trading System EU-ETS), and offsetting schemes. Implementing a MBM is necessary, as technical progress and operational measures alone will not be sufficient to limit climate emissions sufficiently in the aviation sector in the near future.[10]

The first international offsetting scheme for aviation, CORSIA[11], will be implemented step by step starting 2021. Doubts, however, remain as to the effectiveness of this MBM in the light of reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement.[12] Overall, the PPP could hold more potential in curbing aviation-caused climate emissions. The following improvements must, however, be made:

Inclusion of non-CO2 effects and removal of subsidies

Climate damages resulting from non-CO2 effects must be included in a MBM. Despite the major importance of non-CO2 effects, these effects are not included in CORSIA nor the EU-ETS. Secondly, the subsidies in the billions granted to airlines must be removed (e.g. grants for Etihad Airlines by Abu Dhabi; grants by the European Commission to Air Malta). Subsidies have an opposite effect than the PPP, as they falsify the costs that must be borne.[13] Also, due to subsidies, aviation has a competitive advantage over other – more sustainable – means of transport.

Full payment for all environmental costs until 2050

The polluter must fully pay for all environmental costs by 2050 to reach the 1.5°C Goal (2085 at the latest for the 2°C Goal). The price for one ton of CO2 in 2019 including all climate costs (CO2 and non-CO2 effects) is 371 Euro/ton CO2.[14] The price set under the EU-ETS today is much lower at approx. 30 Euro/ton CO2.[15]To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the PPP can be implemented gradually (with increasing CO2 prices over time), however, the above-mentioned full payment to the given deadlines must be reached.

Implementation of the PPP at the beginning of the value chain

Currently, all MBMs that have been implemented address the airlines. However, making the fuel suppliers pay for subsequent environmental damages, holds one significant advantage: fossil fuel suppliers would lose their competitive advantage, due to not paying for climate damage, over renewable energy providers. If all suppliers include environmental damage in their pricing, the market conditions would be equal.


[1]Statista, ‘Number of flights performed by the global airline industry from 2004 to 2020’ (2020) <www.statista.com/statistics/564769/airline-industry-number-of-flights/> accessed 24 February 2020.

[2] Arthur Sullivan, ‘To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel‘ (2020) <https://www.dw.com/en/to-fly-or-not-to-fly-the-environmental-cost-of-air-travel/a-42090155> accessed 24 June 2020.

[3] Umweltbundesamt, Umweltschonender Luftverkehr: lokal – national – international (Umweltbundesamt Publikationen, 2019), 30.

[4] man-made.

[5] Malte Niklaß, Benjamin Lührs, Robin Ghosh, ‘A Note on How to Internalize Aviation’s Climate Impact of non-CO2 Effects’ <www.researchgate.net/publication/311788948_A_Note_on_How_to_Internalize_Aviation%27s_Climate_Impact_of_non-CO2_Effects> accessed 15 Mai 2020; equal conclusion reached in Jörg Larsson, Simon Matti, Jonas Nässén, ‘Public Support for aviation policy measures in Sweden‘ (2020) <https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2020.1759499> accessed 20 August 2020.

[6] IATA, ‘Annual review 2019’ (2019) <https://www.iata.org/contentassets/c81222d96c9a4e0bb4ff6ced0126f0bb/iata-annual-review-2019.pdf> accessed 11 February 2020,16.

[7] The Guardian, ‘Polluter pays’ is the only principle that can limit aviation emissions’ (2012) <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/apr/04/polluter-pays-aviation-emissions> accessed 15 February 2020.

[8] David Boyd, ‘Clean up after yourself’ <www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/clean-up-after-yourself/article773567/> accessed 10 February 2020.

[9] Philippe Sands, Jacqueline Peel, Adriana Fabra, Ruth MacKenzie, Principles of International Environmental Law (Cambridge University Press, 2018) 240.

[10] ICAO, Environmental Report 2019 – Chapter: Climate Change Mitigation: CORSIA (ICAO Publications 2019) 236.

[11] Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.

[12] That is holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

[13] Stefan Gössling, Frank Fichert, Peter Forsyth, ‘Subsidies in Aviation’ (2017) 9(8) Sustainability 1295, 1295.

[14] Umweltbundesamt, Methodenkonvention 3.0 zur Ermittlung von Umweltkosten Kostensätze Stand 02/2019 (Umweltbundesamt Publikationen, 2019). UBA recommends the use of a multiplier of 2.0 for the transfer of the CO2 price to aviation emissions to include the non-CO2 effects.

[15] Michael Holder, ‘EU carbon prices surge to 14-year high’ <www.businessgreen.com/news/4017770/eu-carbon-prices-surge-14> accessed 23 July 2020.         

Pre-trial detention decision-making during the COVID-19 crisis: the urgent need for open justice

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In April 2020, Tom Smith, Senior Lecturer in Law at UWE Bristol, published a short article for criminal justice NGO Fair Trials, discussing the use of pre-trial detention during the Covid-19 emergency. The full post was written by Tom Smith and was first published on the Fair Trials website.

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has the majority of the world confined to their homes on lockdown, vital public services – most visibly healthcare – continue to operate in very difficult and risky circumstances. The criminal justice system is one such public service. Whilst most jurisdictions have made significant changes to their working practices in response to the pandemic, work must continue to ensure that justice is delivered fairly and effectively. An essential element of doing so is ensuring justice is seen to be done; this principle of open justice is crucial to a fair and effective justice system, but is currently under threat. In England and Wales (E&W), this is particularly so in relation to cases involving pre-trial detention (PTD), which are, at present, the main work of the criminal courts. The vast majority of cases deemed non-vital are currently not being heard, most notably in magistrates courts (in which all cases start and most cases conclude). HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which has been publishing daily operational updates, identifies ‘overnight custody cases from police stations’, ‘productions from prisons’, and ‘applications to extend custody time limits’ as the only work currently being conducted by the Crown Prosecution Service (which prosecutes most criminal cases). All involve PTD. Overnight custody cases are, in effect, the first appearance at court of someone charged with an offence. If detained by the police after charge, this must happen the next working day. Productions from prisons will also normally relate to a relevant time limit on PTD, such as the requirement for a defendant to be returned to court within 8 clear days after their first detention. Custody Time Limits (CTLs) apply to all cases involving PTD, and vary depending on the seriousness of the charge. If the limit expires, the defendant must be released on bail – hence the need to return them to court to extend a limit (which courts have the power to do). Other work is identified as continuing in magistrates courts, but the above will be the main case load currently being dealt with – and all involve, exclusively, PTD decision making. 

This is important for several reasons. There are no new jury trials; the Crown Court (the higher criminal trial court) will only cover urgent work. The senior courts, such as the Court of Appeal (which cover a fraction of the cases dealt with in trial courts) are similar. Therefore, dealing with PTD decisions are and will represent the primary day-to-day activity of the criminal courts system as a whole for the foreseeable future. This makes sense in the current situation, but raises questions about pre-existing issues related to PTD. For example, concerns have been raised about the brevity of PTD decision-making, lasting on average a few minutes. Set against a general atmosphere of ‘urgency’ both outside of and within the courts, this may be exacerbated. Similarly, previous concerns about limited reasoning for PTD decisions may be affected by the desire to work swiftly in the current circumstances. Both of the above may also be impacted by the now pervasive use of video link technology (VLT) to avoid the attendance of all parties at court. This is clearly justifiable for public health reasons and the safety of all involved; but this has also been implemented very quickly. VLT has been criticised in the past for not facilitating proceedings adequately in terms of quality, reliability and engagement of all parties involved (particularly defendants). In terms of speed and reasoning, one would hope that more time would be taken over VLT to ensure decisions are thorough and clear. But it might be argued that technology tends to enable and encourage us to do things more quickly. There is a risk this could deepen the problems above. 

The same might be said of disclosure of information and evidence in advance of PTD hearings. Defendants and their lawyers have previously reported consistently failing to be given full information prior to consultation and representation before a court on PTD matters. Lawyers would often receive such information shortly before or even during hearings, sometimes by physically being shown material in court. This may be even more problematic in the current circumstances if none of the parties are actually present in the same room. One must wonder whether remote conduct of PTD hearings will help or hinder defence lawyers in this regard; after all, sharing of evidence prior to the pandemic was done entirely electronically, and yet has consistently been a problem. It is also worth noting that it appears that most PTD decision making in the courts is currently being made by District Judges (DJs, professional judges) rather than a bench of lay magistrates (ordinary, legally untrained citizens). Previous research  has suggested distinct modes of practice depending on the decision-maker, with DJs tending to be quicker, but better in terms of reasoning. Some research has also shown a tendency of DJs to be more willing to detain defendants, though this has varied. Again, this factor could have some impact on PTD decision-making over the coming months. 

Aside from aggravating existing problems in PTD practice, the current situation creates new issues. It has been pointed out by many that it is imperative to reduce the use of detention generally (including PTD) for public health reasons. Keeping defendants out of custody where possible and lawful should be a priority. As such, decisions need to be well considered and not relapse into habitual ways of approaching cases. Previous research has shown PTD practice stubbornly resistant to change in many respects (with some exceptions); we must therefore hope that the long-term issues highlighted above do not restrict this important need to think differently about detention in light of Covid-19. It is hard to say how much of a problem the issues above will be; these suggestions are purely speculative, but that is for good reason. At present, in E&W, it is almost impossible for a researcher or the public to observe PTD decision-making in the courts: they are effectively inaccessible. HMCTS has announced ‘a range of measures to support the principle of open justice’, including: 

  1. access to open hearings if a public gallery is available 
  2. remote access for a third party 
  3. transcripts (if available) for any party or interested person 
  4. audio recording which can be listened to in a court building 
  5. notes of a hearing to be made available on request 
  6. access for accredited media  

On paper, this looks to be a good range of access to PTD decision making in the current difficult circumstances. In reality, they are arguably unfeasible. Numbers 1 and 4 are almost impossible in light of strong guidance to the public not to leave home unless it is essential. Number 2 will, effectively, depend on the goodwill and engagement of particular court staff to facilitate such access. Transcripts may not, in fact, be made and if requested, will depend on definitions such as ‘interested party’. Number 5 may not provide useful information to an observer since notes will not necessarily be comprehensive or reflect their interests. It is also worth noting that for none of the above is further information available on how one might pursue these routes of access. 

Number 6 is the only route that appears to be currently operational, but only to some extent. Some journalists have reported good access to proceedings via remote links. For example, Tristan Cork of the London Evening Standard reported on the bail hearing of Julian Assange (who had a bail request denied on the basis he might flee – a questionable decision in light of the extreme travel restrictions presently in place in the UK). However, this was a high profile case, likely to attract attention – unlike most PTD hearings. Moreover, most of the journalists reporting good access are London-based. It might also be added that many – including Cork – will now be on furlough due to Covid-19, like many members of the working public, and will therefore not be reporting on cases. As such, at present, it is unclear how accessible PTD decision-making is to the media, the public, or researchers. We might therefore ask – beyond the lawyers involved in cases, who is checking current practice? PTD decision-making directly affects the liberty of unconvicted persons and this will (and should) continue despite the various restrictions currently in place. However, the latter fact creates potential for lengthy delays to trials since none are being listed, and therefore much longer periods of detention for unconvicted defendants. It is very important to be able to properly scrutinise such decision making; a lack of scrutiny in any discipline enables (and in some cases encourages) poor practice to flourish.

All the above might be dubbed an overreaction, but the conviction of Marie Dinou has already proven the risks to be real. Dinou was approached by police at Newcastle Central train station and asked to account for her presence. She did not do so and was arrested on suspicion of an offence under the new Coronavirus Act 2020. She spent two days in custody before being brought to a court hearing; after failing to confirm her personal details, she was returned to the court cells, and was convicted in her absence without a lawyer. Dinou allegedly did not say a word on arrest; to her lawyer at the police station; or at court. It appears no mental health assessment was made of her, nor was it confirmed whether she spoke English. After persistent inquiry by journalists and lawyers via social media, it transpired that Dinou had been charged with a non-existent offence under the legislation, and therefore wrongfully convicted. This has now been set aside. As has been pointed out by lawyer Robin Murray, there appear to have been a catalogue of breaches of the Criminal Procedure Rules (which govern criminal court proceedings) and legislation relating to disclosure, compounded by a lack of legal representation and failure to confirm the defendant’s ability to comprehend proceedings. This case, however, bucks the trend of invisibility for most; it was a minor offence dealt with in a lower court, which are generally paid little attention. Yet Dinou spent two days in PTD, to be convicted incorrectly. This raises the very real possibility that this may already be happening across E&W (a jurisdiction with a comparatively robust PTD framework), and beyond; and with very limited access to the courts for external observers to scrutinise and question poor practice, there is real risk of not only unnecessary and excessive detention of unconvicted persons, but wrongful convictions. It is therefore imperative that access to external observation be realistically operationalised as soon as possible; and that practitioners ensure that thoroughness and care is taken in PTD decision-making in the admittedly very difficult – but, equally, medium-term – circumstances in which criminal justice now functions.