Aircraft Noise and Human Rights

Two recent decisions - relating to Heathrow night flights and to the operation of Harrier jets at RAF Wittering - have shed further light on the application of human rights in the context of aircraft noise.

The first is the Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Hatton and Others v the United Kingdom. The judgment is the most recent development in the long running disagreement between local residents and the UK Government relating to Heathrow night noise.

In the days prior to the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, eight local residents raised their grievances about Heathrow night noise in an application to the European Court of Human Rights ("ECHR"). The applicants' main arguments were based on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the "Convention") which contains the right to respect for private and family life subject to certain public policy grounds, including the economic wellbeing of the country and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The ECHR held that Article 8 involved a balancing of interests in which the UK Government had a margin of appreciation. However, in the field of environmental protection, mere reference to the economic well being of the country is not sufficient to outweigh the rights of others. States are required to minimise interference with rights by generally seeking to achieve their aims in the least onerous way as regards human rights. The UK Government had insufficiently comprehensive information on the economic value of night flights and on their effect on sleep and was not properly equipped to balance competing interests. Article 8 of the convention had therefore been breached.

Essentially, the judgment meant that rigorous research had to be carried out before a decision was taken in order to comply with Article 8 of the Convention. The UK Government, concerned at the onerous nature of this requirement, appealed to the ECHR's Grand Chamber. On 8 July 2003, the Grand Chamber determined (by a majority of 12 votes to 5) that the UK Government had not breached Article 8. The UK Government had not overstepped its margin of appreciation. It was reasonable to assume that night flights contributed at least to a certain extent to the general economy and that where a limited number of people in an area are particularly affected by a general measure, the fact that they can, if they so choose, move elsewhere without financial loss must...

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