University of Limerick (UL) has won a legal battle against Uisce Éireann over water charges for college student accommodation.
Ms Justice Marguerite Bolger in the High Court ruled that Uisce Éireann, previously Irish Water, was not entitled to charge for water provided to the university student accommodation.
UL and Plassey Trust, which manages campus student accommodation, brought a High Court challenge to a move to classify the residences as “non-domestic” and to impose charges by 2025.
The case is regarded as significant for universities providing student accommodation.
It is understood that if it got the go-ahead it could have meant an annual cost of €106 per student.
In her ruling, Ms Justice Bolger said the university’s student accommodation satisfies the definition of “dwelling” in the 2013 Water Services Act, which declares that Uisce Éireann shall not charge for the provision of water services to a dwelling.
As a result, Uisce Éireann is not entitled to charge for the water provided to the university student accommodation within the statutory constraints of the level of use and the allocation of domestic allowances.
UL president, Prof Kerstin Mey, welcomed the ruling, saying the the action was taken only reluctantly as students faced “further and higher” living costs if water charges were imposed.
“It is unfortunate that the proposal by UL to deal with this matter by way of the internal complaints process, rather than by way of legal action, was not progressed,” said Prof Mey.
Uisce Éireann said it noted the ruling: “We are currently reviewing the decision and its implications in detail, and will advise on next steps in due course.”
The judge said up until the 2021 decision by Uisce Éireann which was under challenge, the university student accommodation had been allocated domestic allowances similar to that allowed to ordinary dwellings, resulting in a reduction in UL’s overall water services bill.
The judge said the main UL campus is supplied with water via meters, most of which is used for the university business of providing education. A small amount is distributed by UL to its student accommodation.
During the academic year, from September to May, the student accommodation is made available exclusively to students of UL. Outside the academic year, from June to August, the student accommodation is used by some UL students but mainly by non-students such as conference delegates and tourists.
Ms Justice Bolger said the university only sought to challenge Uisce Éireann’s approach to its student accommodation during the academic year and did not dispute its obligation to pay water charges in respect of the student accommodation outside of that time.
It was agreed that the issue to be determined by the court was whether the supply of water by Uisce Éireann to UL’s student accommodation is the provision of water services to a “dwelling” as set out in a section of the Water Services Act 2013.
Granting a declaration that the student accommodation units at the university were a “dwelling” within the meaning of the Act, the judge said she expected the declaration to be properly respected by the parties.
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