Planning Bill threatens to limit access to justice, environmental lawyer warns

Planning Bill threatens to limit access to justice, environmental lawyer warns

Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien said that planning reforms announced this week would make the system 'efficient and effective' and 'fit for purpose for a modern-day Ireland'. Picture: Sam Boal /

The newly proposed Planning Bill aimed at overhauling current obstacles in the system instead threatens to limit access to justice, one of Ireland's leading environmental lawyers has warned.

Donnchadh Woulfe said he had grave concerns about the planning reforms announced this week which Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien claimed would make the system "efficient and effective" and "fit for purpose for a modern-day Ireland" in the midst of the housing crisis.

Mr Woulfe was one of the speakers at a conference hosted by the Climate Bar Association in conjunction with the Southern Law Association that focused on the likes of water pollution, derelict buildings, and arming citizens and groups with knowledge of the law in the age of climate change mitigation.

Mr Woulfe told the Irish Examiner: "There are definite concerns about the manner in which the bill seems aimed at limiting access to justice. It limits the ways planning decisions can be challenged for environmental reasons. 

"It places limitations on environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in terms of how long they have been around, in order to give them standing to challenge planning decisions that might affect the environment, no matter how big those effects might be. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for those restrictions."

Mr Woulfe added that the proposals put the obligation more on individuals to enforce compliance with environmental law, including European law.

"This could be where residential groups, for example, almost have to put forward an individual as the plaintiff, and that puts an awful lot of pressure on people. It’s a stressful business going to court, it’s very costly. To put that pressure on a single individual rather than the residents who might be affected is going to limit the number of cases," said Mr Woulfe.

Chilling effect

This could have a chilling effect, a term to describe a situation where the legal rights of an individual or organisation are discouraged because of the potential burden down the road.

"It’s certainly worrying because it says under S250 of the bill that orders for costs won’t be available, even if a local resident is successful in the case. That is very difficult if they have to fund litigation, which is enormously expensive, often involving a huge amount of work for lawyers because of the complexity of the planning law.

"In relation to the Galway ring road, even as it was under the current regime, many residents simply weren’t in a position to fund a challenge even though it was clearly illegal. It fell upon the Friends of the Irish Environment to take that case. We can’t always rely on NGOs to take these cases," said Mr Woulfe.

The Galway ring road was a €600m project scrapped because An Bord Pleanála accepted that it did not consider the Climate Act of 2021 following a High Court case taken by Friends of the Irish Environment.

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