Minister for Agriculture wins appeal over repayment of €124k to farmer

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. Photo: Arthur Carron
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. Photo: Arthur Carron

The Minister for Agriculture has won his appeal over an order requiring him to pay €124,453, plus interest, to a farmer who had overstated the area of his lands eligible under the Single Payment Scheme.

The Court of Appeal quashed the High Court order made in favour of Michael O'Connor, who farms lands at Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

The High Court made that order after finding errors in how regulations related to the Single Payment Scheme (SPS) for farmers were applied and in how a Department appeals officer decided Mr O'Connor's application under the SPS.

Both the Minister and Mr O'Connor appealed aspects of the High Court decision.

Giving the COA judgment on Thursday, Mr Justice Michael Peart said the SPS is an EU scheme, implemented by each member state, which rewards farmers who conduct their farming activities to a minimum standard.

After Mr O'Connor applied under the scheme in 2010, inspections of his lands found he had significantly overstated the area eligible for the SPS.

They found he failed to made adequate deductions concerning some parcels and included an area of commonage where there was no farming activity and which the inspectors considered was not maintained in good agricultural condition as required under the scheme. Certain animal tagging issues were also raised.

It was ultimately concluded he had overdeclared his lands and he was also informed there would be a 5 per cent sanction arising from the animal tagging.

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He sought a review but a department appeals officer upheld the over-declaration of land eligibility and 5 per cent sanction decisions. He was refused a further review.

The Agriculture Appeals Act 2011 Act permits an appeal to the High Court against such a refusal "on any question of law".

For reasons including breaches by the department of relevant regulations relating to land inspections, the High Court allowed the appeal and directed the Minister to pay Mr O'Connor €124,431, reflecting the SPS sum for the eligible lands, plus interest at 2 per cent, from April 2012.

Mr Justice Peart upheld the Minister's arguments the High Court was not entitled to provide a remedy to meet what it considered "the justice of the case".

He agreed an appeal under the 2011 Act is confined to a point of law and the trial judge was not entitled to make what were essentially judicial review findings.

If Mr O'Connor wished to challenge the lawfulness of the inspections and seek to overturn the disputed decisions, his remedy was judicial review, he said.

Once the High Court had concluded that the findings about over-declared lands were properly based on evidence before the appeals officer, the mandatory and directly effective provision of the relevant EC regulation could not be varied as a matter of judicial discretion, he said.

That was so even if the High Court considered that was merited to meet the justice of the case or in light of the serious flaws which the High Court found had occurred in the procedures.

On foot of those and other findings, the COA allowed the Minister's appeal, set aside the payment order, and dismissed the cross-appeal.

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