By an Order of 27 May 2020, Mrs Justice Keegan sitting in the High Court in Belfast overturned a decision of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland in Barnwell Farms Limited, Re Judicial Review  NIQB 28 and remitted it to the Department. The Department operated a two-stage appeals process for administrative decisions with stage one being internal and stage two being an external process of hearing by external appointees as an independent panel, frequently with technical expertise. On an issue which involved technical judgment, but where the Department had declined to follow the findings of the Independent Panel, the Court held that EU law required that reasons be given so that the affected individual can determine whether there are grounds for challenging the interference with their rights.
In the case before the Court, the failure of the Department to engage with the core issues raised by the Applicant and the Independent Panel was fatal to the legality of the decision. The Panel had drawn a distinction of principle (based on the precise agricultural business which needed to be considered in application of the statutory test) which dictated the relevant evidence to be taken into account. The Department had rejected the distinction without explanation and the Court held that it was under an obligation to “explain why the Independent Panel analysis [was] not followed”. Accordingly the decision was unlawful both on grounds of inadequate reasons and also rationality/Wednesbury unreasonableness as the Court could not assess whether the core issues had been addressed.
Hugh Mercer QC (who is also a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland) led Fionnuala Connolly BL (Bar of NI) for the successful applicant, instructed by Andrea McCann of McKees solicitors, Belfast.