Call for establishment of constitutional protection for environment

Climate Case Ireland has urged politicians to act observation by Chief Justice

The Chief Justice, Mr Frank Clarke, pictured shortly after his appointment to the position in 2017. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The Chief Justice, Mr Frank Clarke, pictured shortly after his appointment to the position in 2017. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

Environmental group Climate Case Ireland (CCI) has stepped up its campaign to have a constitutional right to a sustainable environment established.

The group has written to members of the Oireachtas seeking cross-party support for a move to address the observation by Chief Justice Frank Clarke that the precise type of a constitutional “right to the environment” could be the “subject of debate and democratic approval” and “express incorporation into our Constitution” rather than relying on a decision of the courts.

It has also launched a petition calling for a citizens’ assembly to address Ireland’s biodiversity crisis and to examine how the Constitution could be amended to allow for “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”.

The Chief Justice’s observations came in the July 2020 unanimous decision on a case taken by the conservation charity Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) in which the Supreme Court quashed the Government’s 2017 national mitigation plan.

The court considered for the first time the “personal constitutional right to an environment that is consistent with the dignity and wellbeing of citizens at large” enumerated by Mr Justice Max Barrett in a High Court judgment on a FIE challenge in 2019.

Ruling this definition was “impermissibly vague”, the Supreme Court observed that “in most of the states where a constitutional right in the environmental field has been recognised, same has been achieved by the inclusion of express wording in the constitutional instruments of the state concerned”.

Chief Justice Clarke concluded “an ill-defined right to a healthy environment is either superfluous or lacking in precision and I would not suggest that a right as so described can be derived from the Constitution”.

“The advantage of express incorporation is that the precise type of constitutional right to the environment which is to be recognised can be the subject of debate and democratic approval,” he added.

CCI suggested to the TDs and Senators his observation “should be addressed before the retirement of the Justice in October as an acknowledgment of the place in Irish legal jurisprudence that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court holds”.

The organisation’s campaign coordinator Clodagh Daly said: “The Constitution is a living document and needs to change to give us the rights we need as people in a rapidly changing world. In the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis, we need to decide whether the time has come to enshrine the right to an environment in the Irish Constitution.”