Citizens in European Union countries may be able to sue their governments for financial compensation if illegal levels of air pollution damage their health, an adviser to Europe’s top court said on Thursday.
The adviser’s opinion follows a string of rulings at the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) in recent years, with around 10 EU countries including France, Poland, Italy and Romania found guilty of illegal air pollution.
The court said: “Advocate General Juliane Kokott takes the view that an infringement of the limit values for the protection of air quality under EU law may give rise to entitlement to compensation from the State.”
Ms Kokott noted that it is often poorer communities that live and work in highly polluted areas and particularly need judicial protection.
She said, however, any individuals claiming compensation would need to prove that the damage to their health had been directly caused by the air pollution.
A government may also avoid liability if it could prove the pollution limits would still have been breached if it had a sufficient air quality plan in place, Ms Kokott said.
EU court opinions are non-binding, but the court typically agrees with them in the ruling that follows in the coming months.
The opinion concerns a case brought by a Paris resident seeking 21 million euros in compensation from the French government, on the grounds that air pollution damaged his health and the government failed to ensure compliance with EU limits.
A Versailles court hearing the Paris dispute asked the EU court to clarify whether individuals can claim such compensation.
Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner in charge of environment issues at the time, said: “The decision to sue member states before the ECJ has been made in the name of European citizens.
“We have always said that the Commission is protective and our decision in made in that sense.
“The member states sued at the EJC had enough ‘last chances’ to improve the situation in the last 10 years.
“It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.
“But legal action alone will not solve the problem.
“That is why we are outlining the practical help that the Commission can provide to the national authorities’ efforts to promote cleaner air for European cities and towns.”