ClientEarth wins EU court ruling on UK air quality case

Not-for-profit legal group ClientEarth has won a ruling at Europe’s highest court, enabling it to pursue the UK Government for breaches of EU air quality standards in the Supreme Court.

The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that national courts can force governments to comply with EU rules and empowered the UK courts to take “any necessary measure” to ensure the UK meets its targets. The judgment marked its first ever ruling in relation to the EU Air Quality Directive, which sets a set of legal limits and targets dates for reducing air pollution.

Client Earth partner Alan Andrews has so far taken the case through the High Court, Court of Appeal (CoA) and the Supreme Court before heading to the CJEU, which handed down its ruling today. He turned to Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC, Emma Dixon and Ben Jaffey.

The battle started four years ago, when ClientEarth took action against the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The organisation said 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).

The High Court ruled that the UK was in breach of the EU directive but did not set down a remedy. It ruled that enforcement as a matter for the Commission. ClientEarth responded by taking the case to the CoA, which also declined to give a remedy ruling despite acknowledging the breach.

On 1 May 2013 the CoA sided with ClientEarth, ruling that the Government should face immediate enforcement action at national or European level. However, it referred the case to the CJEU to determine what national sanctions should be taken against the UK and what plans the UK should be forced to put in place to meet the target.

The Supreme Court will make a final ruling next year, when the judges will apply the CJEU’s ruling to the facts in the UK case.

For more on the case, see our special report: Air pressure