In a recent case, the High Court found that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (the Authority), in dealing with an application for approval of a pier-side weighing system, had wrongly deferred its decision on the basis of an engagement with a third party and taking into account an irrelevant consideration.
Pelagic Weighing Services Ltd and Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation Ltd (the Applicants) were required to and sought approval from the Authority in respect of their pier-side weighing system. During the application process, the European Commission (the Commission) had written to the Authority outlining issues regarding the private ownership of the pier-side weighing system.
There was a dispute on the facts as to whether the Authority had refused the application as a result of the Commission's intervention (as contended by the applicants) or whether the Authority had merely deferred its decision (as contended by the Authority).
The Applicants argued that the Authority had acted in breach of national and European Union law and otherwise ultra vires in refusing to consider their application and/or refuse same on the basis of the Commission's intervention. The Court had to consider whether the Authority improperly abdicated its statutory responsibilities to the Commission and whether the Authority's approach was lawful in the circumstances.
It was accepted by both parties that there was in fact no reason in law why weighing facilities should not be in private ownership.
Mr Justice Simons, having considered the facts, held that the Authority had clearly "withheld" approval of the system on the basis of the intervention by the Commission and the issues raised therein. The Court considered the role of the Authority in light of its legislative responsibilities under EU law and Irish law, held that the Authority had erred in law in withholding approval and had misdirected itself in law by withholding a decision on the application in light of the intervention by the Commission. The Court noted that the Authority was the relevant decision-making body and held that the Commission had no formal role in the application process and had no decision-making function under the relevant legislation. The Court held that the Authority's decision to withhold approval for the applicants' application on the basis of the intervention of the Commission and the issues raised was ultra vires.
In this case the Authority misdirected itself in law in withholding a decision on the basis of an intervention by a third party (the Commission) and in taking into account an irrelevant consideration (the supposed requirement that the weighbridge be in public ownership). This case is of significance to public bodies as even a deferral of a decision may be successfully challenged if the basis for the deferral is due to the intervention of a person who has no entitlement or role in the decision-making process or where a deferral of a decision is based on an irrelevant consideration.
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