UFU to assist with Judicial Review on Cross Compliance penalties

28 March 2014: Members of the UK farm unions meet for talks at UFU headquarters in Belfast. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
28 March 2014: Members of the UK farm unions meet for talks at UFU headquarters in Belfast. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

The Ulster Farmers’ Union has confirmed it is assisting in the application to take a judicial review against the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

This is over the definition of ‘intent’ in relation to CAP direct support cross compliance breaches, which under the existing penalty matrix results in a huge increase in the level of penalty.

The case involves County Armagh farmer, Ian Marshall, who the UFU believes was treated extremely harshly when a minor pollution incident led to the loss of thousands of pounds of income through CAP payments.

“We recognise that Ian is UFU president, but that is not why the Union has decided to help take his case,” said UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston, adding that the UFU has for some time been seeking a test case of this nature to make a challenge on points of principle that have considerable wider impact.

“There have previously been a number of similar cases that the UFU had been keen to pursue through a judicial review, but our legal advice was that this case which we have now brought is the strongest from which to establish a precedent,” said Mr Aston.

The case will challenge the lawfulness of a finding of intent on a number of grounds arising from a pollution incident. “The case is however not about pollution or indeed the scale of the incident,” said Mr Aston. “We accept there is no acceptable level of pollution. What this is about is whether the NI Environment Agency and the Department of Agriculture were right to ignore the views of the independent external appeal panel in this case. It considered this was a negligent rather than intentional breach and had recommended accordingly. But NIEA/DARD then imposed significant financial penalties by disallowing a large part of the associated CAP payment, which is an essential part of farm incomes in Northern Ireland,” he said.

The UFU says it accepts that a judicial review is a time-consuming and costly process, but says it has taken a number and been successful in relation to points of principle on behalf of its members and will continue to do so where and when necessary.

“Farmers have to live with red tape, but it has to be applied in a fair and reasonable way. We will seek redress on behalf of UFU members if we believe an unfair principle has been established. We look forward to this case which is being taken in the interests of all farmers who feel they have been treated unfairly, and faced disproportionate penalties which jeopardise the future of their businesses when they are doing their best to live with complex regulations,” said Mr Aston.

The application for leave to apply for Judicial Review has been listed for hearing in Belfast High Court on 12 November.