NI Environment Minister’s “retreat from Moscow”

I mentioned that the public inquiry into the John Lewis development at Sprucefield has been delayed due to legal concerns about comments made by the NI Environment Minister, the DUP’s Edwin Poots. 

The BBC reports that Lord Justice Girvan has asked the Attorney General to consider contempt of court proceedings, despite a statement from the Minister being read out in court today.  And, it would appear, not just in regard to the Minister. 

From the BBC report

Lord Justice Girvan said [the Minister’s statement in court today] did not “sit easily” with his comments on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

He emphasised how the courts decide applications in accordance with the law and do not set planning policy.

“The minister’s comments should not be made at all while litigation is pending,” he said.

“The minister has failed to recognise what happened should not have happened.”

Lord Justice Girvan set out how the judicial review case had “taken an unusual and so far as I am concerned unprecedented course”.

He said as a consequence of what had happened the public inquiry into the John Lewis planning application had been postponed until the case was resolved.

“The whole situation can only be described as lamentable,” he said.

But he stressed that Mr Poots should neither have been invited onto the programme nor accepted the invitation.

He said: “The role of each of these parties should be considered by the Attorney General.” [added emphasis throughout]

Update  From a 28th October BBC report

In a statement issued on Thursday, the Attorney General’s office confirmed that a decision had been taken “not to make an application under the contempt of court in respect of Mr Poot’s remarks”.

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  • joeCanuck

    I fail to understand why the learned Judge is suggesting that the BBC somehow were at fault for inviting the man onto the program. The fault surely lies with Poots alone for his ill-considered remarks?

  • jtwo

    He’s having a laugh if he thinks Larkin is going to try to make legal history by bringing contempt proceedings over a non-jury civil case.

    Contempt laws are basically there to make sure jurors do not hear prejudicial material.

    If the AG brought proceedings Girvan would have to say his judgement had been clouded by listening to Nolan.

  • cynic47

    jtwo

    I am not a legal expert but I always thought that public comment was not allowed on any issue that was the subject of legal proceedings no matter what type of court sitting was involved, jury or otherwises. I stand to be corrected.

  • jtwo

    The test is “a substantial risk of serious prejudice” in criminal cases. And it’s always down to the AG whether that test is met, which it very rarely is.

    There is acres of technically ‘prejudicial’ material in all media, every day.

    Contempt in civil cases is usually to do with the breaching of an injunction.

  • The Observer

    Planning Service must be in turmoil.

    Is the judiciary laying down the law with maverick ministers?

    JC – i agree. Nolan is totally blameless in all of this.

    The buck stops with the Minister.

  • Brian Walker

    It is a very rare for a judge to take such a step. By asking the new AG to consider contempt proceedings, the courts could be seen as headed for confrontation with the Executive. Girvan must have felt he had no alternative even after hearing Poots’ half apology. He has also put the new appointment of a local AG to a serious test.

    English practice is for courts to be very wary of head-on clashes with the Executive, but then UK ministers are seldom as direct in criticising the judiciary.

    Would it be enough if Poots ate more humble pie? Or does Poot’s resignation loom?

    Despite his foolishness, there’d be much uneasiness if the courts appeared to force the resignation of a minister. Do all the lawyers involved privately believe it would be enough to issue a warning?

    Any lawyer around to give an informal opinion?

  • joeCanuck

    Brian,
    The Judge has asked, not instructed, the AG to make a consideration. I don’t see how a request can lead to a confrontation between the Executive and the Judiciary.

  • Angry Planner

    “Turmoil” doesnt even remotely come close!

    This is what happens when you have a stubborn and ignorant minister who won’t listen to any advice and is unable to realise that as minister he has to put local interests aside together with spineless and incompetent civil servants who won’t stand up to him.

    There is of course one way Poots can overcome the prejudice issue and that’s by doing the honourable thing.

    There’s a far wider issue at play here, Poots was dumped from the Executive in 2008 after his ill starred time at DCAL. Yet in 2009 he was brought back to the frontline and given the more sensitive Environment post which he has managed to balls up even more than he did at DCAL. So why was he put in this post? You should ask the man who put him there, our esteemed First Minister!

  • Angry Planner

    The only time a minister has resigned after was prejudicing a court case that I’m aware of was in 1984 when Nicholas Fairbairn then Scotland’s Solicitor-General had to resign after discussing details of a rape case with a journalist. Now of course that was a criminal case as opposed to a matter of planning law so they’re not directly comparable.

    Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Poots forced to resign over this but I don’t think he will have to. He’ll be slapped on the wrist by Girvan and the DUP will probably hide him until the election after which he’ll be dumped like in 2008 but this time there will be no comeback!

  • magnus

    Undoubtedly there’s an hierarchy of ministers been visible for a while

    Incompetent or badly damaged
    Edwin Poots
    Conor Murphy
    Caitriona Ruane
    Michelle Gildernew
    Peter Robinson

    Blessed by invisibility and media occupied elsewhere
    Nelson McCausland
    Margaret Ritchie
    Reg Empey
    Sammy Wilson

    Has an idea of what the job takes but still has odd moment in the naughty corner
    Michael McGimpsey
    Arlene Foster
    Martin McGuinness

    Early days yet but the sorting hat seems to be putting David Ford alongsde Poots and co.

    By my reckoning that’s less than a quarter able to do their
    jobs

  • Bungditin

    AP – Correct me if I’m wrong but, while the Planning Appeals Commission hears the public inquiry, is it not the Environment Minister who decides whether or not to accept its findings? If he is the final decision maker on this case then his position is even more untenable!

    Pretty ironic that his criticism of the judicial review for causing delay is now causing delay!

  • chewnicked

    Ritchie’s that invisible, she’s not even a Minister anymore, Magnus-the ‘angry ant’ Atwood has the gig now…..

  • Brian Walker

    Joe, If the AG thinks there’s a case to answer the confrontation ensues, Of course,the judge could have summoned Poots for contempt himself so the ref to the AG may amount to an invitation only to warn Poots. . Wer’e getting into specialist territory here but contempt over sub judice is often intepreted more losely – see the amount of evidence often released by police before trial Yet this is an unusual and sensitive case involving a clash over a minister’s behaviour not a clash on the interface between the courts sand the executive, .

  • Angry Planner

    Spot on! The DOE can ask the PAC to hold a public inquiry for applications that have been declared as “major” under Article 31 of the Planning Order. The PAC then conducts the inquiry hearing and prepares a report for the Minister. In theory the minister can ignore the PAC’s recommendation but since the introduction of the Human Rights Act it’s doubtful that a minister could do so even if they hadn’t prejudiced themselves like Poots has done!

    Sorry for this being out of sequence!

  • Comrade Stalin

    Didn’t the then-Environment Minister Nigel Dodds overrule the planning process when the Victora Square project was approved ?

  • Angry Planner

    Dodds was DSD minister! Don’t know how that worked as it would have been under legislation I’m not familiar with!

  • Bungditin

    Where’s Lionel Hutz when you need him!

    It has been reported that Poots is taking advice on how he can extricate himself from the decision, but remember that he as minister has the final say. It is difficult to see how he can continue without leaving any decision open to further challenge and protracted delay

  • just sayin’

    McGimpsey ….? Having a laugh!

  • Mrazik

    Comrade; Dodds did overrule the findings of the public inquiry as DSD minister. The DSD are the main Dept with ‘responsibility’ for urban regeneration and also have key vesting powers, hence their involvement with Victoria Square.

    DSD will be intimately involved in decisions taken over the Royal Exchange scheme (North Street, Donegal Street etc.) which seems to be bubbling up again. They often seem to call the shots even though they don’t actually have planning powers.

  • Pete Baker

    Update From a 28th October BBC report

    In a statement issued on Thursday, the Attorney General’s office confirmed that a decision had been taken “not to make an application under the contempt of court in respect of Mr Poot’s remarks”.