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Access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters

The European Union wishes to keep citizens informed about and involved in environmental matters and to improve the application of environmental legislation by approving the Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters (Århus Convention).

ACT

Council Decision 2005/370/EC of 17 February 2005 on the conclusion, on behalf of the European Community, of the Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.

SUMMARY

This Decision approves the Århus Convention (signed by the European Community and its Member States in 1998) on behalf of the Community.

The Convention, in force since 30 October 2001, is based on the premise that greater public awareness of and involvement in environmental matters will improve environmental protection. It is designed to help protect the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being. To this end, the Convention provides for action in three areas:

  • ensuring public access to environmental information held by the public authorities;
  • fostering public participation in decision-making which affects the environment;
  • extending the conditions of access to justice in environmental matters.

The Community institutions are covered by the definition of a public authority within the meaning of the Convention, on the same footing as national or local authorities.

The parties to the Convention undertake to apply the listed provisions, and must therefore:

  • take the necessary legislative, regulatory and other measures;
  • enable public officials and authorities to help and advise the public on access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice;
  • promote environmental education and environmental awareness among the public;
  • provide for recognition of and support to associations, organisations or groups promoting environmental protection.

Public access to environmental information

The Convention lays down precise rights and duties regarding access to information, including deadlines for providing information and the grounds on which public authorities may refuse access to certain types of information.

Access may be refused in three cases:

  • the public authority does not hold the requested information;
  • the request is manifestly unreasonable or formulated in too general a manner;
  • the request concerns material in the course of completion.

Requests may also be refused on grounds of confidentiality of the proceedings of public authorities, national defence and public security, to further the course of justice or to respect the confidentiality of commercial and industrial information, intellectual property rights, the confidentiality of personal data and the interests of a third party who has volunteered the information, though all these grounds for refusal must be interpreted in a restrictive way, taking into account the public interest served by disclosure of the information.

A decision to refuse access must state the reasons for the refusal and indicate what forms of appeal are open to the applicant.

Public authorities must keep the information they hold up to date, and to this end establish publicly accessible lists, registers and files. The use should be promoted of electronic databases containing reports on the state of the environment, legislation, national plans and policies and international conventions.

Public participation in environmental decision-making

The second part of the Convention concerns public participation in decision-making. This must be ensured through the authorisation procedure for certain specific activities (mainly of an industrial nature) listed in Annex I to the Convention. The final decision to authorise the activity must take due account of the outcome of the public participation.

The public must be informed, early in the decision-making procedure, of the following:

  • the matter on which the decision is to be taken;
  • the nature of the decision;
  • the authority responsible;
  • the procedure to be used, including the practical details of the consultation procedure;
  • the procedure for an environmental impact assessment (if any).

The procedural time-frames must allow for genuine public participation.

A streamlined procedure has been set up for the formulation of environmental plans and programmes.

The Convention also invites the parties to promote public participation in the preparation of environmental policies as well as standards and legislation that may have a significant effect on the environment.

Access to justice in environmental matters

Regarding access to justice, all persons who feel their rights to access to information have been impaired (request for information ignored, wrongfully refused, inadequately answered) must have access, in the appropriate circumstances, to a review procedure under national legislation.

Access to justice is also ensured in the event of the Convention's participation procedure being infringed. Access to justice is also allowed for the settlement of disputes relating to acts or omissions by private persons and public authorities which contravene provisions of national law relating to the environment.

Transposition of the Århus Convention into Community law

The Community has undertaken to take the necessary measures to ensure the effective application of the Convention. The first pillar of the Convention on public access to information was implemented at Community level by Directive 2003/04/EC on public access to environmental information. The second pillar, which deals with public participation in environmental procedures, was transposed by Directive 2003/35/EC. A proposal for a Directive published in October 2003 is intended to transpose the third pillar which guarantees public access to justice in environmental matters. Finally, a Regulation adopted in 2006 is intended to guarantee the application of the provisions and principles of the Convention by Community institutions and bodies.

REFERENCES

ActEntry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal
Decision 2005/370/EC17.5.2005-OJ L 124, 17.5.2005

RELATED ACTS

Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the position to be taken on behalf of the European Community on the interpretation of Article 14 of the Aarhus convention [COM(2008) 174 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Council Decision 2006/957/EC of 18 December 2006 on the conclusion, on behalf of the European Community, of an amendment to the Convention on access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters [COM(2006) 338 final - Official Journal L 386 of 29.12.2006].
The amendment in question increases public participation in decisions concerning the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. At Community level this requirement is already met by certain provisions of Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms and Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed.

Last updated: 15.05.2008
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