The Ulster Farmers’ Union is seeking a second judicial review (JR) of a decision by DAERA to impose cross compliance penalties over an accidental water pollution incident involving former president Ian Marshall.
The original decision by DAERA was deemed ‘unlawful’ at the first judicial review, and costs were awarded in favour of the UFU.
Having been instructed to review its decision DAERA has now said it stands, and this is the basis for seeking a judicial review of that decision, the UFU said.
The original case was taken on a test basis by the UFU and it believed it had won its arguments. The UFU has also said it will pursue DAERA for full costs of the case. To date of the UFU’s £120,000 DAERA has paid £70,000 and is refusing to pay for specialist legal support from a London barrister.
UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston, said that for the UFU this case is a matter of principle.
“Every member has our support if we feel they are being unfairly treated. With a JR we seek to establish guidelines. We believed we had done this, and if it requires a second JR to confirm that then we are happy to pursue it on behalf of all farmers,” he added.
The UFU says that at issue in the case is a withheld CAP payment of around £50,000. To date the case is set to cost taxpayers £120,000 for the UFU’s costs, with an unknown amount for DAERA’s legal fees.
“At a time of constraint on public expenditure, which is hitting schools and hospitals, DAERA needs to explain its readiness to risk further legal costs. We are prepared to spend whatever it takes to challenge this grossly unfair decision. Despite comprehensively losing the first JR, and seeing their decision making declared unlawful by a judge, it seems DAERA is happy to gamble again with public money,” said Mr Aston.
The UFU says this case raises wider concerns about what they have described as ‘the high-handed approach of officials’ when there is no political input into their decision making.
“DAERA seems more concerned about falling foul of the European Commission over a minor error by a farmer than it is about wasting taxpayers’ money on a fresh legal case,” said Mr Aston.
In preparation for a second JR the UFU has employed consultants to re-examine the original water pollution dispute.
“DAERA’s approach was not just a sledge hammer to crack a nut – it was a hammer taken to a nut that could not even be seen. That they want to risk a second protracted and costly court case is amazing. It smacks of a vindictive attitude towards hard working farm families and a willingness to follow too closely the diktats of the European Commission,” said Mr Aston.
In response a DAERA spokesperson said the Department carefully considered Justice Maguire’s ruling and took a fresh decision in light of this.
“The Department is required to implement EU schemes correctly and this remains its primary objective. As this matter is now subject to further legal review it would not be appropriate to comment further,” the spokesperson added.