Human rights – article 8 – positive duty – right to respect for private life
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has overturned the decision below. The Court held that in previous cases in which environmental issues had given rise to violations of the Convention, the national authorities had failed to comply with some aspect of domestic law. In the present case, however, the policy on night flights had been found to be compatible with domestic law. Environmental protection had to be taken into account by Governments in acting within their margin of appreciation and by the Court in its review of that margin, but it would be inappropriate for the Court to adopt a special approach to environmental protection by referring to a special status of environmental human rights.
The Court noted that the introduction of the 1993 policy on night flights at Heathrow airport was a general measure, rather than a particular one aimed specifically at the applicants in this case. The State therefore had to be left a wider choice as to the various ways by which it could fulfil its obligation under art 8 to give due consideration to the particular interests affected. The Court noted that there were difficulties in establishing whether the 1993 scheme had actually led to an increase in night noise and was unable to reach any firm conclusions on that point. However, there was nothing to suggest that the authorities’ decision to introduce a scheme based on the quota-count system was as such incompatible with art 8.
Regarding the economic interests which conflicted with the desirability of limiting or halting night flights, the Court considered it reasonable to assume that the night flights contributed at least to a certain extent to the general economy. It could be inferred from the studies commissioned by the Government on the economic value of night flights that there was a link between flight connections in general and night flights, and it could readily be accepted that there was an economic interest in maintaining a full service to London from distant airports. It was very difficult to draw a clear line between the interests of the aviation industry and the economic interests of the country as a whole. Airlines were subject to substantial limitations on their freedom to operate, however, including the night restrictions which applied at Heathrow. The 1993 scheme had subsequently been modified, moreover, to restrict operators further.
A further relevant factor in assessing whether a fair balance had been struck was the availability of measures to mitigate the effects of aircraft noise generally. The applicants did not contest that the house prices in the relevant areas had not been adversely affected by the night noise. Since only a limited number of people had been adversely affected by the scheme (2 to 3% according to a 1992 sleep study), the fact that they could move elsewhere without financial loss was significant in assessing its overall reasonableness.
The Government had consistently monitored the situation and the 1993 scheme had been preceded by a series of investigations and studies carried out from as early as 1962. The new measures introduced under the scheme had been announced to the public by way of a consultation paper published in January 1995. The applicants could have made any representations they felt appropriate and challenged subsequent decisions if their representations had not been taken into account.
Accordingly, the Court found that the authorities had not overstepped their margin of appreciation by failing to strike a fair balance. It concluded that there had been no violation of art 8.
Hatton v UK (The Times, 8 October 2001) (ECtHR)
A successful claim by residents living close to Heathrow airport that the noise pollution caused by night flights was a breach of their article 8 rights to respect for home and private life.
Rejecting the UK government’s argument that the interference with those rights was justified by reference to the economic well-being of the country, the ECtHR stressed that ‘in the particularly sensitive field of environmental protection, mere reference to the economic well-being of the country was not sufficient to outweigh the rights of others’. States had a positive duty to act to secure the rights of individuals under article 8. While it was, at the very least, likely that night flights contributed to a certain extent to the national economy as a whole, the importance of that contribution had never been assessed critically, whether by the government directly or by independent research on their behalf. In failing to carry out a proper and complete examination as to what the best solution to the night problem would be, the State had failed to strike a fair balance between the UK’s economic well-being and the applicants’ effective enjoyment of their right to respect for their homes and their private lives.