CITIZEN SUITS: A LEGAL RIGHT
by Ruth Yaffe
Israel Union for Environmental Defense
The public’s role in pursuing court litigation in cases of environmental pollution has been the weakest link in Israel’s system of environmental enforcement. The goal today is to ease the way for citizens to bring civil claims and secure injunctions against potential and actual polluters. Recent years have seen a definite movement in this direction.
The first breakthrough in the civil enforcement of environmental legislation in Israel occurred in March 1992 with the passage of the Abatement of Nuisances (Citizen Suit) Law. The law enables citizens to file law suits on behalf of themselves or non-profit organizations of which they are members, in cases of environmental pollution or nuisances. Such nuisances may include air, marine and water pollution, solid waste, hazardous substances and radioactive pollution, and environmental nuisances, when these contravene legislation, orders, plans, business licenses or permits, or when they threaten human health or cause major distress. Aggrieved citizens must give prior notice (60 days) of their intent to file a complaint to the Minister of the Environment and to the offender. If no action to eliminate the nuisance is taken, the complaint may be filed. The law places three types of legal remedies at the disposal of the citizen: restraining orders, prevention of recurrence orders and corrective orders. A non-profit organization whose primary purpose is environmental protection is eligible to file an action, if at least one of its members is eligible to do so.
With the dawn of 1996, an impediment to effective enforcement was removed with the promulgation of an amendment to the Abatement of Nuisances
(Citizen Suit) Law. The 1996 amendment provides an alternative to the standing requirement for the necessity for plaintiffs to be either an affected person or a non-profit organization in which an affected person is a member. The amendment expands the right to submit suits to seven voluntary or statutory organizations, including the National Parks, Nature Reserves and National Sites Council; the National Parks Authority; the Nature Reserves Authority; the Council for a Beautiful Israel; the Public Council for the Prevention of Noise and Pollution in Israel (MALRAZ); and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.
The granting of broad standing to citizen environmental groups is a central and important feature of citizen suit laws. Because of the difficulty in proving a direct causal relationship between ‘an environmental nuisance’ and ‘a person damaged by, or likely to be damaged by an environmental nuisance,’ the 1992 law was not widely exploited by ordinary citizens or by grassroots environmental organizations. The recent amendment overcomes this obstacle. By allowing certain public interest groups to assert claims, the amendment provides a powerful tool to force polluters into compliance with environmental statutes.