Feature: People’s chance to go to court for their right to clean air 

Katie Nield, clean air lawyer at ClientEarth discusses how legal action can help to achieve clean air. 

Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to human health in the UK and across the world. From asthma to cardiovascular disease to cancer, research into the harm air pollution causes is unequivocal: it wrecks people’s lives, health and wellbeing. Yet those that suffer the most from air pollution haven’t yet had the chance to get justice in a court of law. ClientEarth is working with law firm Hausfeld to change that.   

The power of the law  

Despite a growing understanding of the air pollution crisis, those in power have been slow to provide the solutions necessary to protect people. That is true not only with regard to air pollution but environmental problems more broadly.  

In recent years, in a bid to push for change, people from all corners of the world have been taking to the courts and using the law to hold governments and big business to account over the harm they are knowingly causing or enabling.  

For climate change alone, the number of related cases worldwide has more than doubled in the past six years. 

Air pollution is not new to the courts 

EU and UK laws already put legal limits on the level of harmful pollutants in air around us. These limits provide citizens with a degree of protection – where they are exceeded, people and organisations have the right to go before national courts to demand that action is taken to reduce it.  

Using that right, ClientEarth has led the charge in a wave of successful legal actions against government failures to clean up the air across the EU since 2011. Our legal charity has won three legal challenges against the UK Government over illegal levels of NOacross the country. ClientEarth has also defended the right to clean air in German, Czech, Polish, Italian, Belgian and Slovakian courts, forcing governments to develop credible solutions to tackle illegal air pollution. 

In the UK, our legal action has resulted in courts ordering ministers to draw up improved air quality plans, which has led to important progress. As part of these new plans Clean Air Zones are now up and running in Bath and Birmingham, with others due in Greater Manchester, Bristol, Bradford, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool. 

But these improvements have been a long time coming – some of these Clean Air Zones are due to be put in place 12 years after legal limits should have been met. In the meantime, many people have already suffered irreversible harm as a result of living with toxic air. They deserve justice.  

woman in dress holding sword figurine

People-led legal action  

To go to court requires evidence. And proving harm stemming directly from air pollution has traditionally been hard on an individual level – as much of the research measures population-level impacts. In fact, the prospect of linking high pollution levels with an individual person’s health conditions in a court has not been that simple in the past, given tough legal requirements. But as the evidence mounts, this is changing. 

In the UK, the groundbreaking inquest into Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s death highlighted that evidence can be strong enough to make the link between air pollution and one individual person’s health issues.  

And more and more, we are seeing citizen-led legal actions emerging across Europe. In France, several legal challenges have been launched by individuals from Grenoble, Paris and Montreuil seeking compensation from the state for the harm they have suffered as a result of exposure to illegal and harmful levels of air pollution.  

A new kind of legal action  

With the weight of evidence being stronger now than it has ever been, ClientEarth is now working with law firm Hausfeld to explore a new kind of legal action against the UK Government for failing to ensure everyone living in the UK can breathe safer, cleaner air. 

This new case would look to enable people whose health has been impacted by breathing illegally polluted air to be financially compensated for the UK Government’s failure to act to meet legal limits. 

This would provide people with the chance to hold those in power to account for the costs that air pollution has had to their health. It would also put critical pressure on the UK Government to better protect people from the impacts of air pollution going forward, to avoid more of these kinds of claims in the future. 

The science has never been clearer about the impact that the air we are breathing is having on our health. With all that we know about the problem and the solutions to it, it is not right that people should be left to suffer the consequences of inaction. It’s time people had the chance to ask the courts to address that injustice.  

 At this stage, ClientEarth and Hausfeld are looking for people who might be interested in joining the case. If you or someone you know suffer from a disease you think might be linked to air pollution, you can find out about your options on this page: 

This article first appeared in the September Air Quality News Magazine, click here to view. 



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