Court recognises right to environmental protection in Irish Constitution

Update: The text of the judgment is available at this link.

In a ground-breaking judgment the High Court has recognised in the Irish constitution a right to environmental protection consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens.

The proceedings, brought by the Cork-based environmental NGO Friends of the Irish Environment, concerned a challenge to a decision of Fingal County Council granting the Dublin Airport Authority a five-year extension to a 2007 planning permission for the construction of a third runway at Dublin Airport.

FIE argued various points of European and Irish law including that the Irish constitution granted implicit environmental protections.

While the challenge was ultimately unsuccessful on the technical ground that  FIE didn’t have legal standing to bring a challenge under the relevant legislation Mr Justice Barrett nevertheless dealt at some length with the issue of whether there was a personal right to environmental protection in the Constitution.

In summarising its conclusions, the court noted that until recently the exploitation of natural resources had few legal restrictions but lately awareness has grown of the limits to environmental exploitation and of the toll that industrial and technological progress had taken on the environment. Such a historical, exploitative approach, the court said, has been tempered in recent years through European law and through greater public concern about environmental protection and its connection with our quality of life.

It was in this context that the court went on to state:

A right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens at large is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights. It is an indispensable existential right that is enjoyed universally, yet which is vested personally as a right that presents and can be seen always to have presented, and to enjoy protection, under A1t. 40.3.1° of the Constitution. It is not so utopian a right that it can never be enforced.

Concrete duties and responsibilities will fall in time to be defined and demarcated. But to start down that path of definition and demarcation, one first has to recognise that there is a personal constitutional right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens at large and upon which those duties and responsibilities will be constructed.

While the decision of the High Court is open to appeal it nevertheless represents a historic judicial recognition of environmental rights in the Irish Constitution.

FP Logue acts for Friends of the Irish Environment