Minister for Social Protection breached constitutional justice by failing to consider all evidence of a child’s disability

The High Court has found that the Minister for Social Protection erred in law and breached fair procedures, natural and constitutional justice, by failing to properly consider all of the evidence furnished by the applicant that her child was a “qualified child” under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, and therefore entitled to domiciliary care allowance.

The applicant, known as M.D., had sought a review of the decision to refuse the allowance under the statutory scheme, requesting that the respondent carry out an independent physical assessment of the young boy.

The respondent refused this request, and the applicant, stating that she was unhappy with the pace of the process, withdrew her appeal.

The current case was her application for judicial review of the decision, in which she sought an order of certiorari quashing the respondent’s decision.

She also sought a number of declarations, stating that the respondent was obliged to carry out a medical examination, and that the decisions were unlawful and breached principles of natural and constitutional justice.

The respondents made a number of preliminary objections, first that the applicant was time barred in respect of decisions that had been made in 2014.

However, the Court found that as the applicant was engaged in correspondence with the respondent she did not fail to made application promptly.

The Court therefore adopted the dicta of Hogan J. in Solovastru v Minister for Social Protection 2011 IEHC 532 and concluded that she was “attempting to deal with the matter otherwise than by recourse to legal proceedings” and that there was good reason to extend time.

The respondent also argued that the applicant had not exhausted all available remedies, as the 2005 Act provides for an appeal to an independent appeals officer, the decision of whom is subject to a further revision either by another appeals officer pursuant to s. 317, or by the Chief Appeals Officer pursuant to s. 318.

Citing State (Abenglen Properties Ltd.) v. Corporation of Dublin IR 381, O’Donnell v. Tipperary (South Riding) Co. Council 2 IR 483, McGoldrick v. An Bord Pleanála 1 IR 497, and B.N.N. v. Minister for Justice 1 IR 719, the High Court found that judicial review is available when it is clear on the arguments or evidence before the High Court that an available statutory appeal cannot remedy the identified defect or error.

The High Court found that the case of A.M. v. Minister for Social Protection IEHC 524 was particularly on point, and therefore bound the Court.

Addressing the specific facts of the case, the Court found that there was an independent appeal process at which the applicant was able to seek an oral hearing and seek to cross-examine or challenge any evidence tendered by the respondent. As a result, the application for certiorari was premature.

However, the High Court then turned to the declarations sought by the applicant.

The Court agreed with the respondent that there is no statutory basis on which the medical assessment can be carried out in the manner alleged by the applicant.

Having regard to the fact that the process engaged in the application for the allowance was entirely a creature of statute, the Court did not consider that it could intervene in the manner in which that process is engaged by the respondent for the purposes of directing a particular approach to evidence or to any perceived or even admitted conflict of evidence.

Thus, no error had been made by the respondent in that regard.

In relation to the claim that the decision to deny the allowance was irrational, the Court cited O’Keeffe v. An Bord Pleanála 1 I.R. 39;Meadows v. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform 2 I.R. 701 and The State (Keegan) v. Stardust Victims’ Compensation Tribunal 1 I.R. 462, as showing that the Court will not be likely to find that an administrative body has acted irrationally.

Although it was not for the Court to determine whether the decision had been correct, it therefore found that it could not determine that the decision is incapable of being supported on any rational basis.

In relation to the alleged failure to give reasons, the Court again considered the similar case of A.M. v. Minister for Social Protection.

The Court observed that: “It is well established in the authorities that the primary reason a deciding body must give reasons is to enable the person receiving the decision to be in a position to make a coherent decision whether to appeal that decision, or, in the case of an application such as the present one, to be in a position to understand whether further or different evidence might be needed on a fresh application.”

As the applicant had already lodged an appeal, it was clear that she had sufficient information and reasoning available in order to do so, and that she knew in particular that the issue was not whether her son suffers from the identified disability, but the effect and degree of effect of that disability on his ordinary life and his care needs.

However, the Court went on to state that: “To consider that the sole or overreaching purpose of the giving of reasons is to assist in the making of a choice to appeal or review, is to ignore the place of Constitutional and natural justice in the decision making process.”

It was noted that the solicitor for the applicant had argued that the deciding officer had totally failed “to engage with the evidence actually presented”.

It was suggested that the rejection was a “standard rejection letter”, and that no “balancing exercise” had been engaged between the internal medical assessors and the substantial medical and other evidence furnished by the applicant in support of her application.

On the evidence, the Court formed the view that the material before the deciding body did not make available a factual basis on which the deciding officer could engage the full decision making process, and compare or weigh the factors supportive of each position.

The decision had followed the language of the legislation, and showed no analysis of the evidence and no consideration of the individual factors.

Thus, while it was determined that an appeal was an appropriate remedy in the present case, and that therefore the request to grant certiorari should be refused, in the High Court’s judgment the decision making process as presented by the respondent, and the evidence which formed the basis of those decisions, did not show a decision making process that engaged with the evidence in a meaningful way.

Accordingly, the Court proposed to make a declaration that the respondents erred in law and breached fair procedures, natural and constitutional justice, by failing to properly consider all of the evidence furnished by the applicant.

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News
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