Guest piece by Áine Ryall on Climate Change, Human Rights & Public Interest Law

Áine Ryall is Co-Director of the Centre for Law & the Environment at UCC.

The theme of the 2020 PILnet Global Forum held from 19-21 October was Protecting Our Future.  In line with this overarching theme, the Centre for Law and the Environment at the School of Law, University College Cork, convened an expert session on Climate Change, Human Rights and Public Interest Law.  The Forum was a truly ‘global’ event, attracting over 800 participants from 70 countries across different time zones.

The participants in our forum session were: Dr Áine Ryall (Convenor/Moderator); Dr Fred Logue, Principal FP Logue Solicitors; Dr Andrew Jackson, UCD Sutherland School of Law; Éilís Barry, CEO FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres); Dr David Fennelly, School of Law, Trinity College Dublin; and Cara O’Mahony, Centre for Law & the Environment UCC.

The session examined the intersection between climate change, human rights and public interest law.  It also explored the various challenges involved in delivering effective access to justice and the vital role played by strategic litigation in advancing environmental rights.  One of the aims was to identify and explore innovative legal and policy responses to the climate crisis.  It also focused on how best to support, educate and encourage the next generation of environmental lawyers in developing the skills required to facilitate engaged citizenship. 

Fred Logue considered the very significant strategic role that NGOs play in public interest litigation in the area of environmental law due, in large part, to the impact of the Aarhus Convention and European Union law. 

Addressing Climate Case Ireland, Andrew Jackson noted the influence of international networks and the international community of practice and in particular spoke about how these networks helped to ensure that lessons learned from the experience of the Urgenda case in the Netherlands could be transferred effectively to another jurisdiction. 

Éilís Barry observed that real access to justice is a complex challenge, with many different dimensions, requiring responses on multiple levels.  Providing effective access to justice for ‘diffuse rights’, including environmental rights, poses particular challenges in terms of the right to an effective remedy, for example.  Legal aid obviously plays a vital role in facilitating access to justice.  The session included a critical analysis of the recent judgment of the High Court in Friends of the Irish Environment v The Legal Aid Board [2020] IEHC 454 concerning whether a company is entitled to apply for legal aid.

David Fennelly considered climate change litigation in a transnational context, focusing on the People’s Climate Case (currently under appeal to the Court of Justice of the European Union) and an application currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (Youth for Climate Justice).  

A persistent theme throughout the session was the important interconnections between public interest litigation on the one hand, and a broader policy or advocacy role on the other.   Climate change litigation is a particularly dynamic area of public interest litigation at present given the urgency of identifying new mechanisms to address the climate crisis.  The emergence of transnational litigation networks is a notable trend in this field that will continue to develop, facilitating the exchange of ideas and experience across different legal systems.  Human rights-based arguments are a significant feature of public interest litigation aimed at addressing climate change, at both the national and international levels.  Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (the right to an effective remedy) also surfaced regularly during the session as a means of underpinning the right of access to justice.

A recording of the forum session on Climate Change, Human Rights and Public Interest Law at the 2020 PILnet Global Forum is available here

The active involvement of young people in the climate movement is an important factor for all involved in legal education to bear in mind.  The Centre’s participation at the 2020 PILnet Global Forum aimed to showcase our current research project Teaching Environmental Law for Policy Engagement and Impact.  This project is funded by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and the Higher Education Authority.  The project aims to design, develop and test a series of new models of experiential learning in the field of environmental law and policy.  The overarching aim is to improve the learning experience while, at the same time, producing specific student-generated outputs that contribute to policy development and support community engagement.  Designing innovative assessment methods is a key element of the project.  

The Centre recently launched a new short course in Climate Law and Governance for Engaged Citizenship aimed at first year undergraduate students at UCC.



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