There is little evidence of local residents making vexatious court challenges to major infrastructure projects in the hope of a pay-off from developers, An Bord Pleanála has said.
Last week the Government agreed to proceed with plans to restrict court challenges to major building projects. The new rules are partly motivated by the long delays to Apple's proposed €850 million data centre in Athenry, Co Galway, which is still caught up in court challenges over three years after it was announced.
It is understood the Government fears Ireland’s planning process could discourage other multinational companies from investing here for fear they will be caught up in complex and costly litigation.
New proposals agreed by Cabinet will restrict who can take court challenges to major projects. Would-be litigants will have to prove that a development impacts on them in a direct way. Currently objections to a project can be lodged by any citizen on environmental grounds.
The period to launch judicial reviews of major planning decisions will be halved from eight weeks to four weeks, and environmental groups wishing to take a case to court will have to show they have been in existence for at least three years before the planning application.
When it comes to whether there are people out there abusing the process, in all honesty, I really don't think that's the case
According to a government source, Ministers have been told by developers involved in other projects that some objectors threatening judicial review proceedings are looking to be paid off.
Secretary of An Bord Pleanála Chris Clarke said in his experience very few people who challenged major projects were looking for a pay-off from developers.
“When it comes to whether there are people out there abusing the process, in all honesty, I really don’t think that’s the case.”
Mr Clarke said a large proportion of court challenges come from just a handful of serial litigants, but that for the most part they were genuinely concerned about the environmental impact and were taking the cases in good faith.
"In planning circles and legal circles there are maybe four or five of them whose names are very well known. But by and large they believe in what they are doing," he told The Irish Times.
Experts suggested the Government's proposal to restrict court challenges could run foul of European law on access to justice in environmental matters
He said he was aware of a “very small number of people” who may have taken court cases in recent times in the hope of a pay-off. “There might be the appearance that was going on, but the board wouldn’t know.”
Barrister Niall Handy said he was aware of the perception that some planning objectors were motivated by financial reasons but that he had never seen it. "I have not personally come across that in my practice. And I typically act for developers. But on either side I haven't come across that."
Barrister and planning lecturer in Athlone IT Alison Hough agreed. “It doesn’t happen. Not in my experience. I was at the bar for seven years before becoming an academic, and I didn’t come across it. But I can see how businesses feel very frustrated, and they often feel the concerns of the community are frivolous.”
Experts also suggested the Government’s proposal to restrict court challenges could run foul of European law on access to justice in environmental matters.
“If they roll back the rules they may run into difficulty with the Arhaus Convention, which mandates open, timely and cost effective access to justice,” said one senior counsel who specialises in planning matters.