European Court of Human Rights to Rehear Case of Night Flights at London Airport

APRIL 3, 2002

Residents protesting against night flights over southern England suffered a setback in a legal battle to have them banned yesterday when a European court agreed to reconsider its earlier finding that aircraft noise breached their human rights.

In a serious blow to campaigners near Heathrow, the European Court of Human Rights will rehear the case and the Government's claim that the original decision was "seriously flawed".

Ministers have argued that the ruling could cost the Government between 400m and 2bn in compensation and threatens to halt night flights at other British airports. They also claimed the court had not given sufficient discretion to ministers, who had to weigh up the economic benefits of night flights against their environmental harm.

A Grand Chamber of the court will now sit to reconsider the arguments, which it acknowledges raise issues of general importance as well as questions over the interpretation of the European Convention on European Rights.

This is only the 12th time the Chamber has agreed to rehear one of the court's judgments. A court spokesman said the 17 judges, who would sit in the next few months, had the power to overturn the original ruling, modify it, or leave it as it is.

In October eight anti-noise campaigners successfully argued that the loss of sleep suffered by residents under Heathrow's flight paths through aircraft noise violated their human rights.

Yesterday Monica Robb, vice-chairwoman of the campaign group representing residents under the flight path, said she was disappointed that the Grand Chamber had given leave for the Government to appeal. She said: "We just hope they reiterate their original decision and make the UK Government comply with that judgment so that they finally stop night flights." The residents represent thousands of people who had petitioned the Government over night flights and had twice won judicial reviews against the Government without getting the flights stopped.

The court ruled five to two that the Government had breached article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights because the "state failed to strike a fair balance between the United Kingdom's economic well-being and the applicants' effective enjoyment of their right to respect for their homes and their private and family lives". The judges also said Britain had breached article 13 in that there was not sufficient redress for the residents under English law for their human rights.

Each of the eight Heathrow residents, who have been battling for 10 years against night flights, was awarded 4,000 damages for loss of sleep, plus a total of 70,000 to pay legal costs and expenses.

During the court case the residents had accused the Government of breaking its own promises on noise levels. In 1993 ministers said the flight quota would be set at such a level so as to keep overall noise below that in 1988 but the residents claimed that within less than a year those levels had been breached.

Airports across Europe, including Britain's second-biggest airport, Gatwick, have been closely monitoring the progress of the Government's appeal.

Lawyers believe the original judgment questions the right of airlines to operate over built-up areas at night. It also raises the possibility of similar challenges by residents who live near railways and motorways and are disturbed by the noise of trains or traffic.

Source: Independent Newspaper