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Friday 20 October 2017

Sovereign immunity saves Department over 'failed' potato crop

Farmer holding harvested dirty potatoes in his hands. Very short depth-of-field.
Farmer holding harvested dirty potatoes in his hands. Very short depth-of-field.

Aodhan O'Faolain

The farmers claim their total crop losses were valued at over €300,000

An action for damages by two Co Wicklow potato farmers against Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been dismissed on grounds the department was entitled to sovereign immunity as an agent of the British Crown.

The action was brought by Paul and John Brady, of Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, who claimed in 2012 they had bought €88,000 worth of potato seed, sourced in Co Down, which had failed. 

As part of their claim to recover total crop losses of €332,000, they have sued a number of parties including NI's Department of Agriculture, and Rural Development. They alleged the department was negligent in certifying two batches of Premier Elite seed potatoes as fit for purpose.

As a result of alleged shortcomings in examination of the seed by inspectors in Northern Ireland, the Bradys claimed their 2012 crop, which was intended for sale in shops, had failed and turned out to be suitable only for animal feed.

In a pretrial motion, the Department opposed the action arguing  the Dublin High Court lacked the jurisdiction to hear the claim against it on grounds that it enjoys sovereign immunity. The proceedings against it should be set aside, the department argued.

When the proceedings were launched, Sinn Fein's MLA Michelle O'Neill was NI's Minister for Agriculture. She has since been replaced as Minister for Agriculture by DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen.

Lawyers for the Bradys had opposed the motion and argued their claim should be heard before the Republic's High Court.

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Mr Justice Seamus Noonan ruled the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development was entitled to sovereign immunity as an agent of the British Crown.

The Minister had stated the Department had statutory powers under the Northern Ireland Act of 1998, he said. 

These include Section 22 of the Act which provides that the Executive’s power “shall continue to be vested in Her Majesty” and accordingly departments such as Agriculture exercised their executive powers conferred under Statute on behalf of the British Crown.

The judge accepted that legal authorities in the Republic placed the Northern Ireland Executive, the Minister and the NI Department of Agriculture as agents of the Crown.

He said the courts in the Republic were not competent to adjudicate upon the validity of administrative and executive acts by the agent of a foreign sovereign acting solely within its own jurisdiction.

He struck out the statement of claim against the NI Department which had brought a motion asking that the case against it be dismissed. 

The Wicklow growers' damages claim remains against other defendants remains live.

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