NI Assembly Election: Minister can name companies in RHI scheme, court rules
Companies on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme can be publicly named by a Stormont department, a High Court judge has ruled.
Mr Justice Deeny said there was an overriding public interest in Economy Minister Simon Hamilton releasing the details of corporate bodies signed up to a green energy initiative set to cost the taxpayer up to £490m.
But he banned Mr Hamilton from disclosing the names of individuals claiming under the scheme until any objections they have to being identified are properly considered.
It was also revealed that one company with seven boilers has received more than £300,000 since July 2015.
The verdict was delivered on the eve of Assembly elections, called after the RHI scandal led to the collapse of the power-sharing institutions.
The judge confirmed Mr Hamilton was now legally entitled to reveal the names of corporate recipients before he leaves office.
More than 500 RHI non-domestic operators took legal action in a bid to stop disclosure of their details.
Members of the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland (RHANI) claimed the move would breach privacy and data protection laws.
Disclosure would also create a media "feeding frenzy" and lead to a "witch-hunt" of individuals who have done nothing wrong, they argued.
However, Mr Justice Deeny found that the minister was not bound by any legal contract and could take the unilateral step of releasing details.
He also decided publication was justified under the stated aims of ensuring transparency about all beneficiaries.
"It seems clear that the economic wellbeing of the country is being damaged by excessive payments well beyond that contemplated by the European Union being made because of the way the scheme was operated in Northern Ireland," he said. The judge stressed that the planned disclosure was about recipients of grant aid.
Backing freedom of expression over privacy rights, he said: "It is not that one suffers from a disease or one's marriage is in difficulties or one is carrying on an illicit relationship of a sexual kind. It is not disclosure of some piece of criminal folly from one's youth."
Mr Hamilton was set to publish the names of RHI operators last month, but his plans were put on hold after the RHANI launched judicial review proceedings. Counsel for the group claimed in court they were being used as a political football.
He alleged that the minister wanted to release the list to embarrass others and divert attention from any ministerial and departmental responsibility.
Amid suggestions that DUP "cronies" benefited from the scheme, he contended that the intention was to have everybody else "tarred with the same brush".
But the judge rejected his assessment of Mr Hamilton's motives when he referred in the Assembly to supporters of other parties being revealed as RHI recipients.
"That does not permit the court to draw a conclusion that the minister was acting in bad faith or that he did not desire transparency," he pointed out.
Lawyers representing the department had argued that releasing details of those on the scheme was necessary due to its "seismic" impact on Northern Ireland's political arrangements. Mr Justice Deeny agreed with their assessment of the potential fallout.
"The respondent has established the test of reasonable necessity with ease," he said. "This matter is one of acute public interest."
The judge noted a wide range of benefits among those on the scheme. One well-known company with seven of the 99 kilowatt capacity boilers attracting the higher rate of subsidy had received £302,000 in funds since July 13, 2015. Another firm has 10 of the 99kw boilers, all at one postal code area.
However, he ordered that a proper process complying with the Data Protection Act must be carried out before individual recipients can be named.
In a statement issued afterwards, the RHANI said it felt vindicated by this judgment.
"RHANI reinforces that the vast majority of participants in the RHI scheme act in a lawful and responsible manner, and is encouraged that the public and media narrative has changed significantly to this effect since the date of the first injunction," it said.
"RHANI is very clear that the simple publication of names is, in no way, evidence of wrongdoing and, to that end, would urge media outlets to exercise due caution when considering now whether to publish these names.
The Department for the Economy welcomed the judgment, and said it will publish information "as soon as is practical and all details are checked and released in line with the court decision".