Judicial review supports UFU position

Tuesday, 7 February, 2017

Additional Info

The UFU was represented by Counsel with substantial experience of the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy (Hugh Mercer QC and James O’Brien) instructed by Andrea McCann of John McKee Solicitors, Belfast and the UFU's Technical Team.

Press Release 

A judicial review taken by the Ulster Farmers’ Union has found in favour of the UFU position. The review was over the definition of 'intent' in relation to CAP direct support cross compliance breaches.  Existing rules trigger a significant increase in the level of penalties imposed on farmers.

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

Commenting on the decision UFU Chief Executive, Wesley Aston, said that while this was a welcome decision for the farmer involved, the UFU's role in seeking a judicial review had been to protect the wider industry from harsh treatment for minor mistakes.

 

”It is not about pollution or indeed the scale of the incident,” said Mr Aston, “We accept there is no acceptable level of pollution.  The case is about whether NIEA and DARD were right to effectively ignore the views of the independent external appeal panel which considered this was a negligent rather than intentional breach and had recommended accordingly.  But NIEA/DARD considered it to be intentional and placed the burden of proof on the farmer rather than the Department to prove otherwise, imposing a much higher financial penalty and disallowing a large part of the associated CAP payment. We have always maintained that this should not be the case and today’s decision has clarified that the onus to prove intent clearly rests with the enforcement body,” said Mr Aston.

 

“We are no strangers to judicial reviews, and will no doubt do the same again in the future, if there are cases we believe have implications for our 11,500 members.  They can be costly if unsuccessful but as a union our role is to defend our members against unfairness.  Only through that collective strength can farmers take on the cost of legal action to defend a principle on behalf of the wider farming industry,” said Mr Aston.

 

In this particular case, now that the precedent around proving intent has been established we are pleased that not only will ‘intent’ have to be proven more robustly in future breaches of cross compliance but also that all similar historic cases may now have to be re-examined.

 

The UFU was represented by Counsel with substantial experience of the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy (Hugh Mercer QC and James O’Brien) instructed by Andrea McCann of John McKee Solicitors, Belfast.  

Read the full judicial review judgment.

Excerpt from the Court's Assessment below. Full assessment can be found on page 20 of the judgement.

The  Court   has  been   persuaded  by  the  arguments  of  Mr  Mercer,   for  the applicant,   that  the  decision   of Mr  Lavery  in this  case  is flawed   by  reason  of the cumulative effect of the following:

  • Firstly,  the Court  believes  it is likely that  Mr Lavery  did  not appreciate that  in respect  of the issue  he was deciding  the onus  of proof  was on the Department to demonstrate    intentionality    on   the   balance    of   probability.     This   is demonstrated  by the points  made  by Mr  Mercer  at paragraph  [55]  (c)  above which  the court  accepts.
  • Secondly,  the  Court  is satisfied  that  Mr  Lavery  in all likelihood   viewed   the matter  as one  in respect  of which  the  onus  of proof  was  on the  applicant   to demonstrate  that he did not act intentionally.
  • Thirdly,   the  Court  from  the  language   used  by  Mr  Lavery  has  formed   the opinion   that  he may  and  likely  did  approach   the  case  in a way  which  was tantamount  to applying   a strict  liability  approach   when  such  an approach,  it is common  case, was both  inappropriate  and forbidden.
  • Fourthly,   the Court  finds  that  Mr Lavery  did  not  rigorously   consider  and  set out  in  his  decision  what   precise  evidence   there  was  for  the  conclusion   he reached  on the  issue  of intentionality. In other  words,  he failed to set out the respects    in  which   he  had   concluded    that   the   applicant    had   knowinglv breached   the  SMR in question.   This  is probably   explicable  by reason  of the fact that  the  decision  maker  saw  it as the applicant's  role  to explain  why  he should  not be viewed  as having  acted intentionally rather  than his own role to define  the ways  in which  the evidence  demonstrated  that he had so acted.  As Mr  Lavery  applied   the  Cross  Compliance Guidance  for  Field  Staff test,  the detail  of which  is recorded   at paragraph  [36] above,  it seems  to the  court  it was necessary  for him to explain  how he had become  satisfied  to the requisite standard  that  the applicant  had  intentionally caused  the pollution.   As for the test which  Mr McMillan  quoted  from  paragraph  35 of the  ECJ's judgment  in Van  der Ham,   the  court  considers   it  highly  unlikely   that  Mr  Lavery  was aware  of or was applying   it in the course  of his decision  making.  While it may be that  this test could  have  been  used,  in fact, there  was  no reference  to it in the decision maker's   decision  and  no sign it was  applied.   The court  does not accept  that Mr Lavery was applying   this test.
  • Fifthly,  the Court  cannot  ignore  the fact that  there  was at least  one   reference in Mr Lavery's  own  remarks  which  relate  to a matter  which  he seems  to have regarded as relevant  to the  issue he was  deciding  viz the  intentionality  issue, but  which,  on a proper  analysis  (as was  conceded   by Mr McMillen),  did  not sound  on that  issue.  This was in relation  to his comments   about  the situation at the farm in September  2012. In this respect,  there  has been  a compromise  of what  should   have  been  a rigorous   approach,   especially  when  viewed  in the context  of the next point.
  • Sixthly,    the   decision-maker   has   not    dis-associated    his   approach    from irrelevant   and/  or erroneous   statements   put  to him  by the  NIEA and/  or the Department,  referred   to in the  summary   of Mr  Mercer's  arguments  set  out above.   He left such  errors  uncorrected and in so doing  has left the Court  with a serious  concern  that  he may have been influenced  by them.
  • Seventhly,  the decision-maker has left the Court  uncertain   about  the weight,  if any, he gave to the issue  of the diverter.   Mr Lavery  has made  no finding  that he applicant,   in fact, knew  of the problem  in respect  of the  diverter  prior   to the inspectors'   locating  it on the last  day  before  the  end  of the relevant  time window.     In these  circumstances  the  Court  is left  to wonder   whether,   as is evident    in   the   NIEA's    submissions,   the   decision-maker     regarded     the mis-management    of  the   diverter    as  a   significant    aspect   of  the   alleged intentional   breach.   If this was the position,  a finding  of intentionality  would, it seems  to  the  Court,   abrade   with  Mr  Gray's   view  that,  in respect   of  the mismanagement    of   the   diverter,    the   applicant    at   most   was   guilty   of negligence.  Indeed,  it was on this basis that  the CC2 Form was  issued.   This matter,  it seems to the Court,  should  have  been the subject of direct  discussion in the decision.

In view of the Court's  concerns  above,  and taking  into account  the cumulative effect of the various  findings  and reservations to which  the court  has been reference, the Court  is satisfied that the decision-maker's decision,  on balance,  cannot  stand.