A High Court judge has delivered a stinging rebuke to a Stormont minister who publicly criticised legal proceedings over the controversial John Lewis planning application.
In an embarrassing step the Environment Minister Edwin Poots has now said that he is taking advice on how to remove himself from any future decision-making process over John Lewis after the judge said remarks he made amounted to apparent bias.
Businesses opposed to the 500,000 sq ft retail application for Sprucefield have been granted leave to seek a judicial review over claims that a proper assessment was not carried out on the impact the development would have on badgers, bats and newts at the site.
Mr Poots last week described the litigation as “despicable and disgraceful” and “intolerable”.
Now Lord Justice Girvan has asked the Attorney General to consider if the minister’s remarks constitute contempt of court.
But a legal expert has told the Belfast Telegraph that it is unlikely that any contempt of court proceedings could arise.
Referring to Mr Poots’ remarks last week, Lord Justice Girvan said: “The gravity of what transpired on Friday morning should not be underestimated.”
He also ruled there was an arguable case that Mr Poots’ remarks amounted to apparent bias and pre-determination.
In a statement read to the court by a departmental lawyer yesterday, Mr Poots said he did not intend to exert any “undue or inappropriate influence” on the court proceedings and said he was seeking urgent advice on any way he can stand aside from the decision-making process.
William Orbinson QC, appearing for retailers including the House of Fraser and other businesses in Belfast, pointed out there was no firm commitment to stand aside from the process.
Lord Justice Girvan said it 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.
Lord Justice Girvan added: “I will not be the judge in any possible contempt proceedings that may follow from any comments of the minister.”
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.”