John Sturrock QC: Delivering a net zero carbon civil justice system



John Sturrock
John Sturrock

The civil justice system also has its part to play in tackling the climate emergency, writes John Sturrock QC.

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is at record levels, higher than for 3 million years. According to the former Governor of the Bank of England, and now UN special envoy on climate action and finance, Mark Carney, the world is on track for a 3 degree increase in warming.

However, if we are to avoid irreparable damage to our environment and to our individual and collective futures, levels must be maintained at well below a 2 degree increase. The world faces tipping points such as disintegration of ice sheets, species extinction and permafrost thaw, along with biodiversity loss, drought, wildfires and flooding, which could push parts of the earth into irreversible changes and displace billions of people.

There is increasingly strong scientific and political consensus. The financial sector is beginning to understand the long-term consequences for economies, investment and risk. As President Biden made clear recently, this is the decade when things must change and this is the year when we must start to make a real difference. Whatever we all do in response to the Covid pandemic, we need also to address the implications of climate change and focus on achieving net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible. There is no time to waste. The Green Recovery needs to mean something. And to deliver.

The next Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change, COP26, will take place in Glasgow this November. Arguably, it is one of the most important global meetings ever. Nations need to commit to implementing what was agreed at a previous COP in Paris. Overall, we are told that this commitment has so far been woefully insufficient.

Whoever we are and however we go about our lives, we all have a part to play in this, as Scotland’s Climate Assembly recently reminded us. The UK Committee on Climate Change has challenged us all in Scotland to walk the talk. The Scottish Government has set challenging targets for reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2045. Scotland’s public bodies are expected to lead by example and make “a valuable contribution” towards achieving these targets. Experts say that we need to translate big picture commitment into sectoral delivery and real results on the ground.

Today, in Scotland, a conference is being held to discuss “Civil Business Post Covid”, providing “a forum for a discussion amongst interested parties about how Court of Session and Sheriff Court civil business might be conducted once the pandemic is over”.

My question for the conference is this: How can we design a civil justice system in Scotland fit for the future, not only post Covid but addressing climate change and minimising environmental harm? How can we deliver a Net Zero Carbon civil justice system? With COP26 coming up, how can we show leadership to others?

This raises some interesting further questions:

  • What will the Law Society of Scotland recommend to achieve an environmentally sustainable approach to helping clients resolve disputes?
  • What further can members of the Faculty of Advocates do to reduce carbon emissions?
  • How can the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service do more with its online services to make a difference?
  • What encouragement might judges individually and collectively give to litigants?
  • What pledges or commitments might individuals and institutions in the civil justice system give to achieve net zero outcomes?
  • How can those in the civil justice system involve the general public in a cooperative effort to produce tangible results?
  • What might we learn from other civil justice systems in their response to climate change?
  • In practice, what might this mean in the civil justice system for patterns of consumption, use of renewables, travel and various forms of process?

The Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Voss, recently set out radical proposals for an effective and efficient civil justice system in England and Wales, including online integration of alternatives such as mediation, leading, he argues, to significant economic benefits for the country. The objective for the Scottish civil justice system must surely be to move from traditional resource-heavy processes to those which achieve the twin benefits of efficient dispute resolution and a lower carbon footprint.

“This is not for us…” won’t do. We’re all in this together. Those of us in mainstream professional activities in Scotland, including the civil justice system, must act now.

  • John Sturrock QC is a mediator and chief executive of Core Solutions Group. This article first appeared in The Scotsman.


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