A seven-judge Supreme Court will sit in the King’s Inns on Monday to hear an important appeal over the dismissal of an environmental group’s case alleging a Government plan to tackle the climate crisis is flawed and inadequate.
The hearing marks the first major physical hearing of the Supreme Court since the Covid-19 lockdown was put in place in March.
The court has been conducting remote hearings and delivering judgments electronically during the lockdown but has not held physical hearings.
Social distancing for judges
Monday's hearing is being held in the King's Inns because, unlike the Supreme Court in the Four Courts, it has adequate space to allow the seven judges sit two metres apart from each other in line with Covid-19 social distancing guidelines.
The appeal, by Friends of the Irish Environment, concerns a High Court decision rejecting the group's challenge to the government's National Mitigation Plan.
Published in July 2017, the plan set out measures described as the first steps on a path designed to transition Ireland to a low carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.
In proceedings against the Government, Ireland and the Attorney General, FIE sought to quash the government's decision approving the plan and asked the High Court to direct the government to produce a plan that will properly tackle the risks posed by global warming, including flooding, fires, ecological destruction and loss of life.
Greenhouse gas emissions
The existing plan fails to specify any measures to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it is required to do, it claimed.
The State respondents argued the plan was not justiciable, meaning its adequacy or otherwise could not be decided on by a court.
FIE, they argued, was impermissibly advancing a prescribed policy and seeking to impose a positive obligation on the State to deliver such a policy.
In his September 2019 judgment dismissing FIE's case, Mr Justice Michael McGrath ruled the government must be afforded broad discretion in adopting plans under the Climate Act.
In light of the constitutional separation of powers, the court could not interfere with the plan, he ruled.
The Supreme Court later agreed to hear a "leap-frog" appeal, one directly to that court rather than the normal route via the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court said the issues raised are of "general public and legal importance" and all the parties involved accepted there is "a degree of urgency in respect of the adoption of remedial environmental measures".
There is no dispute between the parties as to the science underpinning the plan, the likely increase in greenhouse emissions over the lifetime of the plan and "the gravity of the likely effects of climate change", it said.
The appeal will address the availability of judicial challenge to the legality of the plan; the standard of such review if adoption of the plan is justiciable as a matter of law; and broader environmental rights asserted by FIE under the Constitution, European Convention on Human Rights and/or from Ireland's international obligations.