The experience in court yesterday highlights the unfairness of the judicial review procedure in relation to High Court appeals by public authorities under the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations.
Gavin as the requester had no automatic right to be a notice party to the proceedings even though his right of access to information formed the subject matter and the decision of the Court to grant of a stay could affect that right adversely.
Luckily the judge asked that Gavin be invited to address the court. He was, in fact, the only party to put arguments against a stay being granted since the Commissioner has decided to remain neutral on this issue.
We already know that in late 2011 the Commissioner was on the point of consenting to an application by NAMA to ask the court to find in its favour and thereby ending the appeal and reversing the Commissioner’s decision. Without being a notice party we do not know why or in what circumstances the Commissioner continued to fight the appeal. Crucially, we did not have the right to make submissions on the issue but rather had to rely on the discretion of the Commissioner to inform us of the position.
It goes without saying that this situation is fundamentally unfair.
Indeed, Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention guarantees applicants a fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive judicial review process. However serious question marks must be raised concerning how this provision is implemented in Ireland since there is no automatic right for an applicant to be a notice party to judicial review proceedings initiated by a public authority against an administrative decision.
It is not like the State has no experience of this issue. Ireland has already lost a case in similar circumstances when the European Commission took Ireland to the ECJ concerning the non-implementation of the “not prohibitively costly” element of the review obligations. The ECJ found that discretionary practices (in relation to costs) cannot be considered to be a valid implementation of an obligation. Yet here we are today and a requester for environmental information has no automatic right to participate in the appeal procedure initiated by a public authority.
This ECJ decision led to the enactment of Part 2 of the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 which means that now costs may not be awarded against plaintiffs in certain judicial review cases relating to environmental law unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Leaving aside costs, the NAMA -v- Commissioner for Environmental Information case has exposed further flaws in the procedures for environmental judicial review where a public authority is the appellant. With a minimum 7 year delay for a final appeal in the Supreme Court the procedures clearly lack the timeliness required under the Aarhus Convention and with no automatic right to be a notice party a fundamental lack of fairness is built in to the structure of the current review procedure.