Implications of legal scrutiny processes (including the L'Aquila trial and other recent court cases) for future volcanic risk governance

Richard J Bretton*, Joachim H Gottsmann, Willy P Aspinall, Ryerson B Christie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)
334 Downloads (Pure)


Discourse about the L'Aquila trial in Italy has overlooked the many different roles that laws play within risk governance. For volcanic risk governance, laws not only create the duty holders, beneficiaries and the relationships between them (the stakeholders) and the duties and rights (the stakes) but also dictate the acceptable standards of safety and wellbeing (the ultimate rewards). Within any legal regime, certain court cases will attract a high public profile. They can serve a very helpful role by opening the black box of societal risk management so that robust and candid scrutiny of the past can lead to better management of the future. With such cases, the goal of the competent observer is to advance beyond debate about contested factual details of the past (the noise of what happened) and, by process of induction, to identify wider issues of principle and precedent upon which to make reasoned improvements (the signal to guide what should happen differently in the future and why). The generic characteristics of law-based regulatory regimes are identified because they can be treated as 'constants' which do not change, or do so only very slowly over time. Accordingly, these aspects are highly relevant to long-term risk governance. More ephemeral case-specific factual issues often remain contested and, accordingly, receive less attention here. Significant recent court cases, including L'Aquila, are framed by process of deduction within a generalised legal infrastructure in order to identify the root causes of the apparent status quo of risk governance. This forensic approach is vital not only to identify the legal responsibilities of societal risk managers and the managerial risks that they face and their causes but also to consider possible mitigation strategies. We identify the critical issue of managerial risk vulnerability related to 'standard equivocality' which is the absence of commonly recognised standards for hazard communications to risk decision makers. This absence may result from the lack of regulation of relevant practices and practitioners. We offer some recommendations to fuel debate not only within those science groups that reacted to the L'Aquila case but also the scientific community as a whole. Finally, we argue that checklists represent a rational and methodical way to develop acceptable practice standards focussed upon the difficult risk mitigation choices that are made by civil protection authorities and at-risk individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Article number18
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Applied Volcanology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2015


  • Hazard communication
  • L'Aquila
  • Legal liability
  • Risk governance
  • Volcanic hazards


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