Only when there is a right, can one seek remedy. The Latin maxim “ubi jus ibi remedium” is a principle that means that the law provides one remedy when there is a violation of a right. However, the question of whether the environment can have the status of personhood to seek remedy when its rights are violated is a scope of discussion. When environmental resources are destroyed for human benefit, the remedy is often from an anthropocentric angle. For example, if an oil leak happens due to the negligence of a ship in the ocean, the remedy will largely take into account the impact on human life in the region. Victims seeking compensation and clearing the split oil will be two of the most significant burdens placed on the polluter. But, the question remains – does the environment have a locus standi in court?
In a judgment dated 19th April 2022, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court invoked the principle of “parens patriae jurisdiction” and recognized Mother Nature as a person with rights, duties, and liabilities to protect, preserve and conserve the environment (Madras High Court Grants Mother Nature ‘Living Being’ Status With Rights and Duties, 2022).
Jurisprudentially, with the ever-growing environmental challenges, recognizing the rights of nature has been a subject of debate across the world. This has resulted in the development of ‘ecocide’ over the years which is soon expected to be introduced into the Roman Statute as a fifth international crime after the genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Such is the relevance of the rights of nature. With climate change being a critical issue for this century, there is a need for understanding what the rights of nature are and the importance of recognizing the same in mitigating environmental problems.
‘Rights of Nature’ movement
It is important to fundamentally change the relationship between humans and the environment for the larger good of the planet which is precisely what the “Rights of Nature” movement does. According to this doctrine, just like how a human has the right to approach a court of law when his/her rights are violated, an ecosystem is entitled to the status of legal personhood with rights which can protect itself by defending in a court of law when harm is caused (Challe, 2021). In several countries, nature has been recognized as a person. An example is a mountain named Mount Taranaki in New Zealand was bestowed with legal personhood status in 2017 (Satish & Satish, 2021). This implies that if the mountain is exploited or damaged for any reason, it has the right to approach a court of law and defend itself. Thus, the rights of nature provide room for nature to exist, flourish, rejuvenate and evolve without human interference. The primary objective of bestowing nature with such rights is to provide the natural environment with the highest level of protection in order to ensure the ecosystem is not disrupted.
But, how exactly does nature go to court and represent itself? When ‘nature’ goes to court, it is represented by a guardian who acts and argues the case on behalf of the environment. This is the principle of parens patriae which the Madras High Court discussed.
What did the Madurai Bench have to say?
The case decided by the Madurai Bench was a common order for two writ petitions filed by the petitioner, A.Periyakaruppan against the respondents the Principal Secretary to Government of Tamilnadu and the Additional Chief Secretary and Commissioner of Revenue Administration seeking for payment of pension which was cut by the respondents as a punishment for the petitioner’s act of giving land deed (pattas) for forest land (A.Periyakaruppan V. Principal Secretary to Government of Tamilnadu & Ors., 2022). In discussing the case, the court identified nature has the right to be represented by the State by the doctrine of “parens patriae jurisdiction” and directed the State and Central governments to undertake initiatives to protect the environment. In the present matter, the court observed that the petitioner, a government official, had failed in duty to take the necessary steps to protect the Government lands. According to the acts done against nature, the court held that sanction must be imposed on the petitioner whereby “compulsory retirement ought to be modified as stoppage of increment for six months without cumulative effect and consequential monetary benefits shall be conferred on the petitioner.” (A.Periyakaruppan V. Principal Secretary to Government of Tamilnadu & Ors., 2022)
This judgment has the potential to pave the way for more judges and judgments to align towards protecting and conserving mother nature. This judicial activism of the courts shows the role of the judiciary in hastening the process of environmental conservation. When more issues are addressed from the perspective of the environment, it becomes easier to bring forth accountability and proactivism towards climate change mitigation for after all mitigation measures are collective efforts of humankind.
A.Periyakaruppan v. Principal Secretary to Government of Tamilnadu & Ors. (2022, April 19). Live Law. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/mother-nature-416320.pdf
Challe, T. (2021, April 22). The Rights of Nature — Can an Ecosystem Bear Legal Rights? State of the Planet. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/04/22/rights-of-nature-lawsuits/
Kalia, S., Naraharisetty, R., & Rakshit, D. (2022, May 2). Madras HC Grants Nature ‘Living Being’ Status, Noting Its Legal Rights. The Swaddle. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://theswaddle.com/madras-hc-grants-nature-living-being-status-noting-its-legal-rights/
Madras High Court grants mother nature ‘living being’ status with rights and duties. (2022, May 1). The Indian Express. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/chennai/madras-high-court-grants-mother-nature-living-being-status-with-rights-and-duties-7895543/
Satish, K., & Satish, H. (2021, September 6). Nature’s locus standi: Taking the Environment to Court – The FinReg Blog. Duke Law Sites. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://sites.law.duke.edu/thefinregblog/2021/09/06/natures-locus-standi-taking-the-environment-to-court/ Surma, K., & Gross, L. (2022, May 4). Indian Court Rules That Nature Has Legal Status on Par With Humans—and That Humans Are Required to Protect It. Inside Climate News. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/04052022/india-rights-of-nature/