Meadows -v- Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform, [2009] IESC 3 (2010)

Docket Number:419/03
Party Name:Meadows, Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform
Judge:Denham J.

THE SUPREME COURT[Appeal No: 419/2003]

Murray C.J.

Kearns P.

Denham J.

Hardiman J.

Fennelly J.


Abosede Oluwatoyin MeadowsApplicant/Appellant and

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Ireland

and the Attorney GeneralRespondents

Judgment delivered the 21st day of January, 2010 by Denham J.

  1. The High Court has certified a question of law for determination by this Court.

  2. The question is:-

    "In determining the reasonableness of an administrative decision which affects or concerns constitutional rights or fundamental rights is it correct to apply the standard as set out in O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála [1993] 1 I.R. 39?"

    The Doctrine of Reasonableness

  3. This case turns on the meaning and application of the common law doctrine of reasonableness in judicial review. The test of reasonableness has been the subject of many cases over the decades. In The State (Keegan) v. Stardust Victims' Compensation Tribunal [1986] I.R. 642, Henchy J. stated, at p.658:-

    "I would myself consider that the test of unreasonableness or irrationality in judicial review lies in considering whether the impugned decision plainly and unambiguously flies in the face of fundamental reason and common sense. If it does, then the decision-maker should be held to have acted ultra vires, for the necessarily implied constitutional limitation of jurisdiction in all decision-making which affects rights or duties requires, inter alia, that the decision-maker must not flagrantly reject or disregard fundamental reason or common sense in reaching his decision."

  4. A later case arose in the context of planning and development legislation. In O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála [1993] 1 I.R. 39 at p.70, Finlay C.J. stated:-

    "'Irrational decision'.

    The question arising on this issue falls to be decided in accordance with the principles laid down by this Court in The State (Keegan) v. Stardust Compensation Tribunal [1986] I.R. 642 which are set out in the judgment of Henchy J. in that case, with which in respect of the legal principles applicable, all the other members of the Court specifically agreed.

    In dealing with the circumstances under which the Court could intervene to quash the decision of an administrative officer or tribunal on grounds of unreasonableness or irrationality, Henchy J. in that judgment set out a number of such circumstances in different terms.

    They are:-

    '1. It is fundamentally at variance with reason and common sense.

  5. It is indefensible for being in the teeth of plain reason and common sense.

  6. Because the court is satisfied that the decision-maker has breached his obligation whereby he "must not flagrantly reject or disregard fundamental reason or common sense in reaching his decision.'

    I am satisfied that these three different methods of expressing the circumstances under which a court can intervene are not in any way inconsistent one with the other, but rather complement each other and constitute not only a correct but a comprehensive description of the circumstances under which a court may, according to our law, intervene in such a decision on the basis of unreasonableness or irrationality."

  7. Finlay C.J. went on to point out that the circumstances in which a court may intervene on the basis of irrationality are limited and rare. He stated that a court cannot interfere with a decision-making authority merely on the grounds that it is satisfied on the facts that it would have raised different inferences and conclusions, or that it is satisfied that the case against the decision was stronger than the case for it.

  8. There are two other important factors in his analysis: (a) the nature of the decision-maker, and (b) the burden of proof. As regards the nature of the decision-maker, Finlay C.J. stated, at pp.71 to 72:-

    "Under the provisions of the Planning Acts the legislature has unequivocally and firmly placed questions of planning, questions of the balance between development and the environment and the proper convenience and amenities of an area within the jurisdiction of the planning authorities and the Board which are expected to have special skill, competence and experience in planning questions. The court is not vested with that jurisdiction, nor is it expected to, nor can it, exercise discretion with regard to planning matters."

    In O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála the decisions under review were those made by An Bord Pleanála and related to planning matters, an area of special skill and competence.

  9. In O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála, there were three important matters for consideration and application:- a) An analysis to determine if the decision in issue was fundamentally at variance with reason and common sense.

    1. An analysis of the nature of the decision maker.

    2. A recognition that the burden of proof rests upon the applicant for judicial review. The skilled nature of the decision maker in issue required such a refined approach. However, the application of the strict nature of the test in O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála is limited to decisions of skilled or otherwise technically competent decision makers. I am satisfied that O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála has been construed too narrowly and in that manner applied too broadly. The decision in O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála related to a specialised area of decision making where the decision maker has special technical or professional skill. A court should be slow to intervene in a decision made with special competence in an area of special knowledge. The O'Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála decision is relevant to areas of special skill and knowledge, such as planning and development.

    Common Law Doctrine

  10. The test of reasonableness in a judicial review is a matter which has been addressed in cases over many decades. It is a doctrine of the common law. Of its very nature it is a doctrine that is inherent in the system and has been applied to many new areas of the law as they develop within the legal system.

  11. As the Oireachtas legislates in new areas of law a consequence is that new lists of cases rise in the courts. A good example of this is the growth of what are termed "the asylum" lists in the High Court. Such cases raise issues of personal rights and fundamental freedoms. An increase in such cases has occurred in other common law jurisdictions also. Other courts of the common law have reconsidered the test to be applied by the courts judicially reviewing such cases.

    Other jurisdictions

  12. Other jurisdictions have approached the growth of judicial review and fundamental rights in different ways. It appears to me that the issue should be addressed in this State by applying Irish jurisprudence. In other words, there should be a common law approach in the context of the Constitution and the law.

    Effective remedy

  13. Judicial review should be an effective remedy. This is so especially when access to the courts has been curtailed by legislation. The process should be such as to give an effective remedy to the decisions under review, including those impinging on fundamental rights and freedoms.

  14. The review in this case arises under s.5(2)(b) of the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act, 2000, hereinafter referred to as "the Act of 2000", which makes provision for an application for judicial review. The section limits access to the courts in a number of ways. (a) It provides that a person shall not question the validity of a series of decisions otherwise than by way of an application for judicial review under Order 84 of the Rules of the Superior Courts. (b) The time for such an application is limited to a period of fourteen days commencing on the date on which the person was notified of the decision, unless the High Court considers there is good and sufficient reason for extending the period in which the application should be made. (c) Also, such an application should be made by motion on notice and the statute places a specific burden upon the applicant, i.e. the High Court must be satisfied that there are substantial grounds for contending that the decision is invalid or ought to be quashed. (d) Further, that decision is final. No appeal lies to the Supreme Court from a decision of the High Court except with the leave of the High Court, which leave will be granted only where the High Court certifies that its decision involves a point of law of exceptional public importance and that it is desirable in the public interest that an appeal should be taken to the High Court.

  15. Section 5 of the Act of 2000 was considered by this Court in The Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Bill, 1999 [2000] 2 I.R. 360 and determined to be constitutional. It was held that the requirements of s.5 did not constitute a denial of access to the courts nor could it be interpreted as restricting the right of any person to bring proceedings pursuant to Article 40.4.2˚ of the Constitution. Foreign nationals were held to have a constitutional right of access to the courts and were entitled to the same degree of fairness as a citizen.

    Time limitation

  16. In relation to the time limitation, the Court stated, at p.393:-

    "… the court is of the view that the State has a legitimate interest in prescribing procedural rules calculated to ensure or promote an early completion of judicial review proceedings of the administrative decisions concerned. However, in doing so, the State must respect constitutional rights and in particular that of access to the courts. Accordingly, the court is of the view that there are objective reasons concerning the public interest in the certainty of the validity of the administrative decisions concerned on the one hand and the proper and effective management of applications for asylum or refugee status on the...

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