Environmental group challenges legal aid board decision

Despite board refusal, FIE proceeded with case over €116 billion Project Ireland plan

 FIE claims the plan adopted in February 2018 was invalid due to alleged lack of proper environmental assessments and failure to properly address climate change. Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

FIE claims the plan adopted in February 2018 was invalid due to alleged lack of proper environmental assessments and failure to properly address climate change. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A voluntary environmental group has brought a High Court challenge over a refusal to consider it for free legal aid.

Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) wants the court to overturn the Legal Aid Board’s refusal to consider its application in 2018 for legal assistance for a case it was taking against the government over the national development plan.

Despite the refusal, it proceeded with the case and the High Court rejected it. FIE is appealing that decision.

The case was over the €116 billion Project Ireland plan which sets out how the country should develop until 2040.

FIE claims the plan adopted in February 2018 was invalid due to alleged lack of proper environmental assessments and failure to properly address climate change.

The defendants – the government, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Ireland and the Attorney General – denied the claims.

In the meantime, FIE took a separate case challenging the Legal Aid Board’s refusal to consider its legal aid application.

Opening that case on Tuesday, Patrick Leonard SC said FIE is a non-governmental organisation for a network of volunteer environmentalists.

The Legal Aid Board refused to consider the FIE application because it was not “a person”, the word used in legislation providing for legal aid in civil cases, he outlined.

The board erred because “a person” has long included a company which is what FIE (a limited company) is, he argued. The Oireachtas clearly intended a “company” such as FIE was included in the definition of a “person”, he said.

It has been the position in this country for the last 130 years, unless legislation explicitly states the contrary, a person also means a company, he said.

FIE did not contend there is an obligation to grant it legal aid but rather there is an obligation to consider the application which the board did not do.

Opposing the case, Nuala Butler SC, for the board, said case law has previously found the courts should apply a literal interpretation to legislation and the board did so in relation to the FIE’s application under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995.

The hearing continues before Ms Justice Niamh Hyland.