Recent High Court decision provides clarity on statutory notice requirements
Re: Murphy’s Irish Seafood Limited v the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine | High Court Record Number 2016/102 JR
A recent High Court decision underlines that public bodies are obliged to strictly comply with mandatory notice requirements prescribed in legislation, when exercising statutory powers.
The Judgment of Ms Justice Baker in Murphy’s Irish Seafood Limited v the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine  IEHC 353, delivered on 1 June 2017, sets out a useful and succinct analysis of the law pertaining to statutory notices, in the context of the purported termination by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (the “Minister”) of an aquaculture licence held by the Applicant, Murphy’s Irish Seafood Limited (“MISL”).
These judicial review proceedings, in which O’Flynn Exhams acted for MISL, concerned an application by MISL to quash the Minister’s decision to terminate its aquaculture licence.
MISL held an aquaculture licence for cultivation of salmon, at two sites in Bantry, County Cork. The term of the licence expired in April 2011, and MISL applied to the Minister to renew the licence. MISL was permitted by statute to continue to operate under the terms of the licence, pending determination by the Minister of the review application.
MISL’s licenced site was severely damaged by a storm in February 2014, resulting in a large loss of salmon stock. On 3 July 2014, the Applicant entered into an agreement with the Minister to facilitate the restocking of the licenced site. Following a protracted exchange of correspondence and course of dealings during 2015, MISL was notified by letter dated 21 January 2016, of the Minister’s decision to “approve the withdrawal of the consent to operate” (i.e. to terminate the licence).
MISL challenged this decision inter alia on the basis that it was made in breach of the statutory provisions for the termination of an aquaculture licence; the Minister had not provided the required notice, had not complied with the duty to give reasons, and had failed to afford MISL due process and fair procedures.
Ms Justice Baker addressed the law in relation to the statutory duty to give reasons, and determined that the grounds on which the Minister was considering the revocation of the licence should have been set out with sufficient clarity and precision, so as to allow MISL to make representations within the 28 day period provided and/or to engage in the appeal and review processes available. The Minister had not met these requirements.
Even when all the Minister’s correspondence was “joined together”, it “did not satisfy the mandatory statutory requirements as to the contents of the notice”. Also, the Minister had “not engaged with all of the matters in a sufficiently clear way” to enable MISL to understand whether or not the Minister was satisfied with the measures taken. Accordingly, Ms Justice Baker made an order of certiorari, quashing the decision of the Minister to revoke the licence.
This decision, coupled with the report on the Review of the Aquaculture Licensing Process published by the Independent Aquaculture Licensing Review Group on 31 May 2017, provides welcome guidance to applicants for, and holders of, aquaculture licences.
The decision also serves as a valuable reminder that public bodies should proceed with care when exercising statutory notice functions, and that recipients of such notices should do likewise.