Amicus Curiae and the right of access to justice in environmental causes

26 April 2013 | News story

Hugo Echeverria, member of IUCN’S World Commission on Environmental Law, talks about a law proposal on Amicus Curiae, submitted a few weeks ago at Ecuador’s Legislative Power.

In 2008, media in Ecuador reported a case of a tourist who tried to leave the country with 741 tarantulas in his luggage. Authorities prosecuted the case, the first of its kind. Environmental lawyer Hugo Echeverria filed a brief of Amicus Curiae to provide specialized legal arguments. Since 2010, with support of various stakeholders including IUCN’s Ecuadorian Committee, this environmental lawyer has filed Amicus Curiae briefs in several environmental cases prosecuted in the Galapagos, a renowned world natural heritage site.

The Amicus experiences confirmed its importance in the context of access to justice, which eventually led to draft a legislative proposal on the subject. The proposal was presented before Ecuador’s National Assembly (Legislative Power) on March 28th, 2013. On April 10th, the Assembly’s Specialized Commission on Justice received its proponents on a hearing: Ecuadorian Center for Environmental Law (CEDA) and civil society members of IUCN’s Ecuadorian Committee.

Amicus Curiae allows a non-procedural parties of a case, full access to a court of law to provide legal reasoning in support of effective judicial protection of public interest issues, such as the environment and -in the case of Ecuador- rights to nature. As such, it has an enormous potential to channel and catalyze public participation, as established in the Ecuadorean Constitution and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, Echeverria says.

Because environmental law is a relatively new legal discipline, its vast normative universe is not always available to everyone. What does it mean for a species to be listed by CITES? What are the legal effects of the World Heritage List? ¨ To better analyze these and other questions -increasingly common in courts of justice- civil society must provide specialized legal criteria¨.

Echeverria explains that Amicus Curiae has constitutional roots and, therefore, does not require legal recognition. Nevertheless, legal guidelines could help improve its implementation in complex fields such as environmental crimes: for example, when and/or how many Amicus Curiae could be submitted?

For the expert, this instrument must be valued as long as it provides solid legal arguments that may contribute to a better judicial decision on specialized environmental causes. "It does not replace nor compete, let alone affect parties to a case; nor does it affect judicial independence. It only provides arguments in favor of the environmental public interest," adds Echeverria.