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Four Problems for Specialist Courts in Dealing with Nonhumam Environmental Victims

posted on 2023-05-22, 17:03 authored by Robert WhiteRobert White

A perennial issue within green criminology is the perception that the formal institutions of criminal justice do not take environmental crime seriously enough. Whilst there is plenty of evidence to substantiate this claim (Cf. South and Erisman 2013; White and Heckenberg 2014), there are also important exceptions to this general rule (see for example, Walters and Westerhuis 2013; White 2013a). The reasons why range from social and legal ambiguities over definitions of harm, through to the inadequate operational knowledge of courts in responding to specific offences and/or in assigning suitable penalties for environmental offenders.

As the central fulcrum upon which justice hinges, the dynamics and nature of the court have a major bearing on what occurs prior to a case, what happens during a case, and what happens after a case has been officially processed. Environmental crime has typically been assigned low value by magistrates and judges, as reflected objectively in sentencing outcomes (i.e., sentencing patterns over time in relation to various environmental offences) (see de Prez 2000a; de Prez 2000b; Fogel and Lipovsek 20 13), although this is due to a variety of definitional, investigatory, evidentiary and social reasons (Bell and McGillivray 2008; White 2011 ), and there is some indication that this is changing (Walters and Westerhuis 2013).

Revisiting these critiques is not the concern of this chapter. As indicated, these issues are now being addressed in several different ways, including through the development of specialist environmental knowledge within legal forums. Rather, the intention is to delve more deeply into the jurisprudential quagmire faced by courts as they attempt to unpack and respond to environmental harm. For sake of illustration, this chapter presumes that specialist courts can and do have greater insight into the nature of environmental offences. Such institutions represent a significant step-up when it comes to both comprehending the extent and nature of environmental harm and in providing remedies that best match the offence in question. For these courts, taking environmental crime seriously is their express mandate. Therefore, the concern is less about urging these courts to be more proactive, punitive and/or pragmatic in dealing with environmental crime, than with understanding some of the basic challenges they face in dealing with highly complex technical and philosophical matters.

The specific topic of nonhuman environmental victims is raised here as a substantive matter for deliberation by environment courts in particular. This is of interest to green criminologists since it pertains to eco-justice issues and how these are dealt with institutionally. Green criminology broadly deals with matters pertaining to environmental justice (in which humans are the victims), ecological justice (in which specific eco-systems are the victims) and species justice (in which nonhuman animals are the victims) (White 2013b). Nonhuman environmental victims include natural objects such as rivers, mountains and oceans, as well as flora (plant life) and fauna (animal life). Consideration of the nonhuman environmental victim incorporates discussion of individual landscape features and specific living entities, through to particular eco-systems. Any particular ecosystem is made up of both abiotic components (air, water, soil, atoms and molecules) and biotic components (plants, animals, bacteria and fungi) (Merchant 2005). Global processes that affect the biotic and abiotic around the world, such as climate change, are very pertinent to any discussion of the nonhuman environmental victim.

This chapter describes the difficulties associated with legal proceedings involving nonhuman environmental victims in terms of four key socio-legal problems. These include: the problem of victimisation, the problem of ontology, the problem of expertise, and the problem of temporality. In outlining these problems the intention is to provide a platform for later in-depth examination of the practical complexities facing environment courts in responding to the plight of nonhuman environmental victims.


Publication title

Environmental Crime in Transnational Context: Global Issues in Green Enforcement and Criminology


T Spapens, R White, W Huisman






School of Social Sciences



Place of publication

United Kingdom



Rights statement

Copyright 2016 selection and editorial matter, Toine Spapens, Rob White, and Wim Huisman; individual chapters, the contributors

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Justice and the law not elsewhere classified

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