A CONSERVATION charity forced to pay £125,000 costs in a losing legal battle has backed a call for the creation of a specialist environmental court.

The John Muir Trust (JMT) says the move would address the “huge imbalance” in favour of developers.

Last year the organisation agreed a £50,000 out of court settlement with energy giant SSE in a long-running challenge to plans for the Stronelairg windfarm in the Monadhliath mountains. That payment followed an earlier £75,000 payout to cover Scottish Government legal costs related to the dispute over the development, which JMT argued should not be built on wild land.

Yesterday the charity backed a Tory bid to create a dedicated court to make such cases quicker and cheaper. Shadow environment secretary Donald Cameron said the body could be incorporated into the Scottish Land Court, which already has jurisdiction over some environmental matters.

Citing the Stronelairg case, Cameron said: “Creating a one-stop shop for environmental disputes would make life significantly easier for communities and environmental organisations.

“When a group wants to appeal a major windfarm decision taken by the Scottish Government, or a village wants to stop pollution of a local river, the pathway to actually doing this is often complex, expensive and drawn-out. Now we have the chance to do something to directly help such people, and making the justice system much fairer when it comes to environmental issues. We can see examples where major environmental cases have fallen because those appealing simply can’t afford to go all the way through traditional court routes. That’s unfair, denies access to justice, and has to change.”

He went on: “We’re forever hearing of the challenges Brexit will pose, usually from the SNP government.

“This is an opportunity once Britain leaves the EU for Scotland to lead the way when it comes to environmental justice.”

Land reform expert Malcolm Combe, a senior lecturer at Aberdeen University, called the proposals “interesting”, adding: “Anything that improves access to justice in general, and access to environmental justice specifically, is to be encouraged and as such these are very interesting proposals. This is especially the case as the Scottish legal framework has occasionally been found wanting in terms of the Aarhus Convention, which seeks to ensure that those hoping to challenge decisions that affect the natural environment can do so without being priced or otherwise locked out of doing so.”

The Scottish Government said it is “committed to maintaining the same high environmental standards” after leaving the EU, adding: “We are taking this matter very seriously.

“The Roundtable on Environment and Climate Change Advisory Group is preparing advice about the nature of potential governance gaps in Scotland and the options for resolving them and we will consider their recommendations carefully as part of considerations of what the best steps are for protecting Scotland’s interests.”

The 67-turbine Stronelairg facility was proposed by SSC in 2012 and gained Scottish Government permission two years later. An appeal by JMT followed and the Outer House of the Court of Session found in its favour in 2015. This was challenged by the Scottish Government and the energy firm, with the Trust’s judicial review subsequently overturned in 2016, when the court’s Inner House ruled the decision to grant consent had been lawful.

With bills mounting, JMT said it could no longer contest the case. Last night a spokesperson said: “The idea of an environmental court is one that we would support, given the huge imbalance within the current planning system in favour of developers with huge resources at their command. In the absence of such a mechanism, we have been forced in the past to take out a judicial review, which is hugely expensive and time-consuming for everyone involved.

“We know that the Scottish Green Party also support this principle, as do a diverse range of environmental and community organisations and a majority who responded to the Scottish Government’s recent Planning Bill consultation.”