Northern Ireland

Attorney General asked to rule on Poots comments

John Lewis
Image caption John Lewis is the anchor tenant of the proposed development at Sprucefield

The Environment Minister could face contempt of court proceedings over media comments he made about the John Lewis planning application.

A judge has asked the Attorney General to consider Edwin Poots' remarks on BBC Radio Ulster last Friday.

Mr Poots said it was "outrageous" for courts to allow judicial reviews when it was one commercial interest competing against another.

The judge said the "gravity" of the remarks "should not be underestimated."

The minister has announced he is to seek urgent advice on any way he can stand aside from the decision making process.

Mr Poots made clear that his comments were not intended to influence the case brought over the proposed development at Sprucefield near Lisburn.

Businesses opposed to the 500,000 sq ft retail scheme have been granted leave to seek a judicial review over claims that a proper assessment was not carried out on the impact a development would have on badgers, bats and newts.

Mr Poots also told the Nolan Show on Friday that the actions of those involved in the litigation were "despicable and disgraceful" and "intolerable".

'Bias'

Lord Justice Girvan ruled that there was an arguable case that the minister's remarks amounted to "bias and pre-determination".

In a statement read to the court by a departmental lawyer on Tuesday, Mr Poots said: "I wish to make it absolutely clear that I did not intend and do not wish to exert any undue or inappropriate influence on the outcome of either the court's proceedings in this case or the public inquiry itself.

"I am very conscious of and I fully respect the distinct roles of the courts, the PAC (Planning Appeals Commission) and the department in planning matters."

He said he was aware that it was of "paramount importance" that the judicial function remained independent of government.

He said he had been conscious throughout his period of involvement that such allegations could be made due to the proposed development being close to his constituency and because of views he expressed before being appointed minister.

Mr Poots said he would refute any claim of apparent bias against him, and had checked with departmental advisers about whether his previous associations could in any way undermine the proper processing of the application.

'Draft'

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.

He added: "The Minister's statement, in our view, is somewhat of a retreat from Moscow.

"One wonders frankly whether it was drafted for the Minister."

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.

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."

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