Committee seeks revisions to planning bill over concerns about judicial review restrictions

Committee chair Green Party TD Steven Matthews

Caroline O'Doherty, Environment Correspondent

Proposed changes to the law to restrict who can seek a judicial review of a planning decision need a rethink, the committee of TDs and senators scrutinising the proposals have said.

The Oireachtas Housing Committee spent several months examining the Planning and Development Bill and hearing from legal and other experts.

In their report published on Thursday, they make 153 recommendations on aspects of the bill causing them concern.

Their number one recommendation is that the proposals around judicial reviews be thoroughly rechecked to see if they comply with the Aarhus Convention.

Aarhus is an international agreement on access to justice in environmental issues, to which Ireland is a signatory.

Environmental campaigners and legal experts told the committee in hearings that any move to make it more difficult for people to access the courts would breach the convention.

The committee also recommends dropping a proposed rule that would require groups of people such as residents’ associations to form a company before beginning court proceedings.

“It is recommended that clarity is provided to ensure people, incorporated organisations, unincorporated organisations and co-operatives, including organisations incorporated within the EU, should be in a position to seek to take judicial review,” its report says.

It also says that where proceedings are taken by a group who have formed a company, the requirement that they pass a formal proposal before initiating action be reviewed.

It says the time limit of eight weeks for initiating a judicial review must also be revised as it is “impractically short”.

Other recommendations are that An Coimisiún Pleanála (formerly An Bord Pleanála) and the Department of Housing consider introducing procedures for mediation or arbitration for early resolution of disputes.

It suggests as a model the Labour Relations Commission procedures for resolution of strikes and workplace disputes.

It also calls for the planned establishment of a dedicated Planning and Environmental Court to be speeded up.

Committee chair, Green Party TD Steven Matthews, said the proposed legislation would “profoundly impact legal and planning professionals, as well as citizens and communities”.

For this reason, the committee had to ensure it was “sufficiently robust for the future of Ireland’s planning system”.

An Taisce, which expressed serious concern about the attempt to restrict access to the courts, welcomed the recommendations but said they did not go far enough.

Policy officer, Phoebe Duvall, said the committee should have sought outright rejection of the proposed changes.

The report now goes to Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien who has repeatedly rejected assertions that he is trying to clamp down on court challenges while also blaming judicial reviews for holding up development.