James Thornton

Ashoka Fellow
United Kingdom,
Fellow Since 2013


This profile was prepared when James Thornton was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.
The New Idea
James is placing the environment at the forefront of the public agenda at the pan-European level, using the power of the law to level the playing field between corporate and public interests. He is leveraging the fact that environmental law is uniquely concentrated at the European Union level, which can pass legally-binding legislation for all its 27 member states, as a way to promote cross-country collaboration on environmental issues. Recognising the limits of campaigning, James set up ClientEarth in 2007 to introduce a small but powerful group of legal experts, acting for the public interest across Europe for the first time. ClientEarth uses an expert understanding of the law’s power and limitations to design effective, implementable, and enforceable new solutions. James has carefully positioned ClientEarth as politically-neutral so that parliamentarians and citizen organizations (COs) alike can acquire the quality legal advice and ready-to-use legislative text they need in order to be effective. Using a thorough understanding of Europe’s complex interlinking systems, James then tracks policies from their conception through to their implementation and enforcement on the ground. ClientEarth’s continent-wide strategy targets every key lever, including working at the national level for wider systemic impact. James is therefore correcting a key failing of Europe’s environmental legislation system by holding all the major stakeholders to account, from government departments to corporations to the EU itself.

James believes that in addition to corporations and governments, COs and citizens have a pivotal role to play in upholding social justice and changing the system in order that the environment is taken into account. He launched the EU Aarhus Centre to train, advise and influence COs and citizen groups, reframing the way they perceive and make use of the law across Europe. James is also opening up EU institutions to be transparent and follow their own rules on public access to information. Furthermore, he is removing the existing barriers for access to justice through the courts. ClientEarth aims to ensure that any citizen or group can have a legal standing at reasonable cost to represent the public interest for the environment themselves, thereby scaling the potential impact of James’s idea across the entire EU system. James is proving that a public interest law approach is a powerful integrating force to cut across the diverse social and political landscapes of Europe, shifting the entrenched structures and mindsets across this continent.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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