The Irish Times view on a legal battle over water charges: it should not have come to this

It took two days of argument in the High Court to settle a dispute between Uisce Éireann and the University of Limerick, which turned on the definition of a dwelling

In a case that turned on the legal definition of a dwelling, the High Court recently dismissed an attempt by Uisce Éireann to impose water charges on University of Limerick (UL) student accommodation. This is welcome news for students, certainly, and bad news for the State body formerly known as Irish Water. But should the matter have gone to court at all?

UL and Plassey Trust, manager of the campus residence, had challenged Uisce Éireann’s decision to classify the accommodation as “non-domestic”. Each student resident faced a new annual charge of some ¤106. Uisce Éireann previously allowed UL domestic allowances for student dwellings, in line with Limerick County Council before it. The policy change led UL to initiate judicial review proceedings.

Uisce Éireann’s move was part of an effort to standardise non-domestic water charges, breaking from a scattered regime in which several hundred separate tariffs were levied by local authorities. Handing down its decision to UL in 2021, Uisce Éireann argued most councils deemed campus student accommodation liable for water charges. So Ms Justice Bolger’s ruling may now have wider implications.

At issue was whether the student residences were dwellings, a straightforward question it would seem. But it took two days of argument in the High Court to settle the matter, with two public bodies on opposing sides, each with senior and junior counsel. According to Chambers dictionary, a dwelling is “a place of residence”. The judge found the UL accommodation satisfied the definition of dwelling – hardly a surprise, surely – and came within the ambit of a 2013 law that said Uisce Éireann cannot charge there for water services. She rejected Uisce Éireann’s claim that UL was the occupier and not the students.

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The judge set out an indicative view that UL should be entitled to its costs, meaning Uisce Éireann could be on the hook for legal fees racked up on both sides. Neither side would quantify their costs but they are likely to be substantial. It should not have come to this.