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Legal Opportunity Structures and the Paradox of Legal Mobilization by the Environmental Movement in the UK


  • Lisa Vanhala

  • I am indebted to the Journal's four anonymous reviewers and the editors for their comments which greatly improved this manuscript. I wish to thank the British Academy for generous financial assistance, which made its preparation possible. I would like to acknowledge Rachel Cichowski, Carol Day, David Erdos, Liz Fisher, Tim Hicks, Chris Hilson, Kathleen Hull, and Dan Kelemen for sharing their insights and providing helpful comments on earlier drafts. I am particularly grateful to Rob Abercrombie who read and commented on the manuscript numerous times and to Corin Throsby for her able editorial assistance. Thanks also to participants and audience members at the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, Il (May 27th to 30th, 2010), the International Political Science Association's Comparative Judicial Studies Group Meeting in Bologna, Italy (June 21st to 23rd, 2010), the Role of Courts in a Democracy Workshop at Oxford University (Feb 10th and 11th 2010), the Oxford Environmental Law Discussion Group (Feb 22nd 2011), the Workshop on Law, Rights and Mobilization in a Multi-level Europe in Onati, Spain (June 16th–17th, 2011) and the UCL Department of Political Science Departmental Seminar for helpful comments. Thank you to Sarah Wilkins Laflamme, Nehal Panchamia and Asma Vranaki for their excellent research assistance. Please direct all correspondence to Lisa Vanhala, Department of Political Science and School of Public Policy, University College London, 29–30 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9QU, United Kingdom; e-mail:


This article examines the strategic legal activity of the environmental movement in the United Kingdom over the past twenty years. Environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have increasingly turned to the courts in pursuit of their policy goals, despite significant losses on substantive legal issues, difficulties gaining standing and high costs awarded against them under the “loser pays” system. This presents a puzzle: why does the movement continue to pursue legal action in the face of what activists claim is a hostile legal opportunity structure (LOS)? This study explores this seeming paradox using a single-country, cross-temporal comparative approach, an original dataset of legal cases taken by NGOs as well as qualitative case studies of strategic litigation. It highlights the agency the movement exhibits within opportunity structures and suggests that NGOs that use litigation are able to highlight the failings of the existing system and improve future access to justice for themselves and other groups.