A legal challenge to cuts in Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payments has been put on hold amid a public consultation on the scheme’s potential shutdown.
Co Antrim poultry farmer Tom Forgrave is seeking to judicially review a decision to slash subsidies for those on the green energy initiative.
But a Stormont Department was granted an adjournment at the High Court after detailing a consultation which could result in closure and the payment of compensation.
Mr Justice Colton said: “It would be wrong of the court to embark on what would be a fairly lengthy, expensive and hotly disputed case in circumstances where the entire landscape may be about to change.”
Proceedings centre on legislation introduced in 2019 that meant annual payments could be cut from £13,000 to £2,000.
Boiler owners signed up to the RHI scheme claim it was a further unlawful step against operators given a 20-year guaranteed rate of return on their investments.
Set up to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to switch to wood pellet-burning systems, the initiative was plunged into controversy after the potential cost to taxpayers emerged.
Operators were able to legitimately burn fuel to earn money, prompting fears of an overspend of up to £700m.
The debacle, which became known as the cash-for-ash scandal, led to the fall of Stormont in 2017.
A public inquiry identified a series of failings but found there had been no illegality surrounding the scheme.
Members of the Renewable Heat Association NI Ltd are also appealing a previous ruling that the Department of the Economy was legally entitled to impose an earlier cut on tariff rates.
Mr Forgrave’s legal action was listed for a hearing due to start on April 19.
With the consultation process set to end a week earlier, counsel for the department argued that the challenge should be put back.
Tony McGleenan QC set out that the preferred option in the exercise is to close the scheme.
Boiler owners could then be offered compensation for their future eligibility to tariffs.
“We could start a hearing and realise within an hour and a half that we are not in a position to take it any further forward because the world will be about to change,” Mr McGleenan said.
Richard Shields, representing Mr Forgrave, claimed the consultation would not address the allegedly unlawful historical losses suffered by his client.
“My instructions are very clear from Mr Forgrave. Such is the financial effect of the legislation on his business that he is simply not able to continue to carry that loss until some undefined point in the future,” he said.
However, Mr Justice Colton said he could not ignore the reality that a process now underway could result in a repeal of the legislation at the heart of the challenge.
Granting the adjournment, he also acknowledged the frustration felt by boiler owners and pledged close continued scrutiny to avoid a protracted process.