History and Purpose

Adjudicating issues of law in the context of ecological regulations or pollution abatement entails often complex issues of environmental science, and the application of specialized norms. Environmental decisions invariably affect broader public environmental values or stakeholders who are not parties to adjudications, as when aquifers cross borders, species migrate from one site to another, or chemicals permeate through air and water systems. In order to more effectively handle environmental adjudications within national or sub-national jurisdictions, many environmental courts and tribunals have been established around the world.

Recently in 2008, the United Nations General Assembly has called upon all States to strengthen the rule of law at both international and national levels. The effectiveness of environmental protection, and thus sustainable development itself, depends upon sustained support for the rule of law in environmental proceedings.  Environmental courts and tribunals share many common interests, such as reflecting best scientific practice in presenting scientific environmental evidence, reviewing the scope and integrity of environmental impact assessments, observing agreed international norms for public participation in administrative environmental decision-making, providing adequate access to justice for environmental interests, criminal and civil environmental law enforcement, and structuring effective remedies in light of the remedial objectives of most environmental statutes.

Between 1985 and 2004, a series of international judicial symposia were held around the globe in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific/Oceana region.  Organized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources (IUCN) Commissions on Environmental Law (CEL) and Environmental Cooperation (CEC), these symposia provided an opportunity to elaborate on the issues facing environmental courts and tribunals.  The 2002 UNEP Symposium of Supreme Court and High Court Judges, held in Johannesburg on the eve of the UN Summit on Sustainable Development, called for international cooperation to sustain an ongoing deliberative process for the judiciary on environmental legal decision-making. Among regional instances of judicial collaboration are the European Union Forum of Judges for the Environment; MERCOSUR’s established annual conference of the courts on environmental law in the cone of South America; and, in 2010, the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales hosting the biennial conference of Environmental Courts and Tribunals from Australia and New Zealand. At the national level, programs for building judicial capacity in environmental matters have been furthered by programs such as those of the Environmental Law Institute, the National Judicial Academy of India’s environmental courts programs, and the establishment of environmental courts in the People’s Republic of China.