Lawsuits and decisions

ClientEarth's case against the UK government

On 1 May 2013 the Supreme Court has declared that the Government is failing in its duty to protect people from harmful effects of air pollution.  The environmental lawyers  Client Earth started this case in 2011 and after several judgments from lower courts it’s now facilitate the European Commission to take action against the UK. Client Earth’s case concerns 16 cities and regions, including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow which government plans show will suffer from illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide until as late as 2020 or 2025. The Supreme Court has granted the declaration sought by ClientEarth to the effect that the UK is in breach of Article 13 of the Directive, that breach having been ‘clearly established’.  That order, said the Court, was appropriate both as a formal statement of the legal position and also to make clear that the way was open to immediate enforcement action at both national and European level. Some of the complex legal questions will be referred to the European Court of Justice. This means that any decision will then have consequences for all EU Member States.

On 10 July 2014, ClientEarth’s case against the UK Government for breaching air quality limits was heard by the court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. ClientEarth and European Commission lawyers told EU judges UK Government plans will not meet nitrogen dioxide limits in London, Birmingham and Leeds until after 2030. This is 20 years after the original legal deadline and five years later than previously admitted. The information was made publically available by Defra the day before.

The ECJ judgment from 19 November 2014 is binding on the UK courts and the national courts in all 28 EU member states. The ECJ highlighted, that limit values for NO2 has to be met since 1 January 2010, if the Member States didn’t apply for a time extension for five years. Member States are obliged to develop an air quality plan, containing effective measures to keep the time of non-compliance as short as possible. The decision indicates that national courts have to demand for any necessary measure from the national authority. The court case was referred to the UK Supreme Court that orders on 29 April 2015 the government to draw up new air quality plans by the end of this year.  

The High Court agreed on 2 November 2016 with ClientEarth that the Environment Secretary had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law "as soon as possible" and said that ministers knew that over optimistic pollution modelling was being used. In addition, the court ruled that the government cannot take costs into account in determining when plans can achieve compliance. The Government had already committed introducing clean air zones in 5 cities in addition to London by 2020 - this ruling will force them to introduce clean air zones in 15-20 cities and reconsider a range of other measures they had previously discounted.

In November 2017, ClientEarth took the government to court for a third time. In ClientEarth’s view, the 2017 Air Quality Plan was seriously flawed, as it failed to provide for any measures to clean up air pollution in 45 Local Authority areas in England that have illegal levels of pollution. Wales had also failed to produce a plan, despite the 2016 High Court order. The case was heard at the High Court in January 2018. On 21 February 2018, ClientEarth won for the third time against the UK government. The High Court ruled that the court should have effective oversight of the UK government’s next air pollution plans. It means, for the first time ever, that ClientEarth will be able to immediately bring the government back to court if it prepares a plan which is unlawful. This move, which means the environmental lawyers will not need to apply for permission to bring judicial review, was described by the judge as “wholly exceptional”.

High Court decision on 1 May 2013

UKSC 2012 0179 Judgment
UKSC 2012 0179 Press Summary
R on appn Client Earth v SSDEFRA - Order Question Schedule
Supreme Court order
Client Earth written observations
EU Commission written observations

ECJ decision on 19 November 2014

Judgment EUGH 2014-11-19

Supreme Court judgment on 29 April 2015

Supreme-Court Judgment 2015-04-29

High Court decision on 4 November 2016

High Court Decision 2016-11-04

Ein Projekt von
Partner: Deutsche Umwelthilfe
Partner: Frank Bold
Finanziert durch
Partner: Life

Subscribe to our newsletter