Climate group challenges refusal to grant free legal aid

Climate group challenges refusal to grant free legal aid
The Friends of the Irish Environment wants the High Court to overturn the Legal Aid Board's refusal to consider an application it made in 2018 for legal assistance for a case it was taking against the Government over the national development plan. Picture: Stock image

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

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

It went ahead with the case anyway and last April 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, who were 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 its case on Tuesday, Patrick Leonard SC said the 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" which was the word used in legislation providing for legal aid in civil cases and fell into error in doing so, counsel said.

Mr Leonard said this was wrong because "a person" has long included a company which is what the FIE (a limited company) is.

The Oireachtas clearly intended that 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 that unless legislation explicitly states the contrary, a person also means a company, he said.

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

The board denies the claims.

Nuala Butler SC, for the board, said case law has previously found that the courts should apply a literal interpretation to legislation. This is what had been done by the board in relation to the FIE's application under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995.

The hearing continues before Ms Justice Niamh Hyland.

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