Couple lose legal challenge against Coillte to reveal land sale details

A couple have lost their legal challenge to a refusal by the Commissioner for Environmental Information to rule that State forestry agency Coillte must give them information about lands and forestry sold by it, including who bought the property and how much was paid. 

Ms Justice Una Ni Raifeartaigh agreed with the Commissioner such information is not “environmental information” within the meaning of regulations of 2007 governing access to environmental information.

While she also agreed with the Commissioner that information provided by a purchaser to a public authority concerning a proposed development of lands is environmental information, and therefore disclosable, she upheld the Commissioner’s finding that, in this case, Coillte could not be required disclose such information when it had said it simply did not have it.   

Jim and Mary Redmond, representing themselves, sought a High Court review of the Commissioner’s November 2015 refusal to require Coillte to give them certain information about its sale in late 2013 of almost 403 hectares of lands and forestry at Kilcooley Abbey Estate, Thurles, Co Tipperary.

Coillte did inform the couple it had sold a leasehold interest in lands and trees but refused to disclose other information on grounds it was commercially sensitive.

Their concerns about the sale included the estate was part of an important historical site with a listed building status and the sale could impact on the environment, including wildlife and deer. They also complained Coillte had made no efforts to consult or inform the public about its intended sale and said it had been reported the sale was below market value.

In rejecting their complaints, Coillte said the sale complied with its process and protocol requirements relating to property sales and that, before the sale, it engaged in a consultation process with the local community including a leaflet drop and one to one meetings with certain parties.

The judicial review centred on the meaning of “environmental information” under the 2007 EC (Access to Environmental Information) Regulations – the AEI Regulations.

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In her reserved judgment, the judge noted the AEI Regulations were implemented following the signing by the European Community of what is known as the Aarhus Convention 1998, relating to access to information, public participation and decision making, and access to justice in environmental matters.

The couple could only rely on those aspects of the Convention which form part of Irish law, she said. Because no right was conferred under the 2007 regulations in respect of public participation, they could not rely on those aspects of the Convention.

The couple appeared to have a "very genuine" concerns about the lands and forestry at Kilcooley, including about tree felling, she said. However, the kernel of their complaint seemed to centre as much on the issue of public participation as on environmental information and the public participation issue was simply not before the court.

The Commissioner, she ruled, applied the correct legal test in deciding most of the information sought by them, including identity of the purchaser, the sum paid, valuations, and the identities of any other parties involved, was not environmental information.

Such information, particuarly price and value of the land, did not meet the requirements of the 2007 regulations for reasons including it could not be described as information "affecting, or likely to affect", the state of elements of the environment such as land and natural sites. 

While she considered information about a proposed development provided by a land purchaser, was environmental information, the Commissioner was told Coillte simply had no information about the purchaser’s intentions, she said. 

The court, when evaluating a decision of the Commissioner, must do so on the basis of the evidence before the Commissioner at the time and there was no evidence before him of the nature of any proposed development. 

Online Editors