By Daniel Barragan (Posted: November 27, 2012)
The resolution -signed by the 21 judges of the National Court of Justice of Ecuador- clarified a legal doubt about judicial competence over environmental crimes in the South American country. It is effective since September 11th, 2012 after its publication in the Official Gazette of Ecuador. Several cases, especially in the Ecuadorian province of Galapagos, prompted a consultation to the National Court of Justice.
In the province of Galapagos there are approximately a hundred cases on environmental crimes, which have been in prosecution in past ten years. In this context, the office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Galapagos promoted a consultation to the National Court of Justice, as several cases involving violations of coastal marine protection rules -including unauthorized fisheries and the capture of marine protected species- were annulated by local judges, arguing lack of judicial competence. These cases were then sent to the nearest Provincial Court of Justice, located some 1000 kilometers away from Galapagos, thus limiting the effective exercise of the right of access to justice, one of the pillars of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration.
The consultation was formally requested by the Attorney General of Ecuador. After a process of analysis at the Presidency and at the Plenary of the National Court of Justice, the Court decided that judges of the territorial section where the offense have occurred, are the competent authorities over such an environmental cases, in accordance to the Criminal Procedure Code of Ecuador.
It should be noted that civil society actively participated in the consultation, through the Conservation, Science and Education Sector of Galapagos, providing written legal criteria on the matter.
Hugo Echeverria, member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, member of the Assembly of the Centro Ecuatoriano de Derecho Ambiental and a member of the Conservation Sector of Galapagos says this is an important and historic decision. “Important, because it answers a legal question on judicial competence, which had various legal criteria, all equally respectable; and historic, because it is the first time the Plenary of the National Court addresses an issue of environmental judicial procedure, showing the leading role that the judiciary has on the new legal field of environmental law “.
For this expert, environmental law at Court Rooms in Ecuador has notably evolved in recent years. “Although we have not yet generated many legal precedents, current judgments demonstrates that the judiciary is an important actor for environmental law enforcement “, he says.
“Today we are in new phase. With the 2008 Constitution, a process that promotes judicial specialization began. 2009 legal reforms suggested, for the first time, the creation of specialized judiciaries on rights of nature. These are issues that the Ecuadorian Judicial Council of Transition has taken very seriously ¨, Echeverria says.
The National Court of Justice has jurisdiction throughout Ecuador. It is composed of 21 judges. Ecuadorian law gives the National Court of Justice the faculty to issue rulings in cases of doubt about laws.