Key recommendations from the Agriculture Appeals Act review

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, recently announced that the report on the Review of the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 and operations of the Agriculture Appeals Office has been published.

The review was given the go-ahead by Minister Creed in September of last year.

The review committee consisted of three members:
  • Niamh O’Donoghue, former secretary general at the Department of Social Protection (chair);
  • Padraig Gibbons, farmer, former chairman of Connacht Gold and former president of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS);
  • Paud Evans, former principal officer at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

As part of the report, the committee has listed a number of key recommendations – which are currently under consideration by the Department of Agriculture.

Administrative appeals model

The committee was satisfied that the current model of an administrative appeals office under the aegis of the department can meet the principles identified in best practice elsewhere.

It also found that it can provide an independent, speedy, cost-effective and efficient appeals mechanism – subject to a number of recommended improvements in processes and timescales.

Agriculture appeals review panel

In order to strengthen the independence of the agriculture appeals process, the committee recommends that, where an appellant is not satisfied with the decision of an appeals officer, he or she can seek a review of that decision from an independent Agriculture Appeals Review Panel.

It was outlined that panel should consist of five members, including: an independent chairperson; the director of the Agriculture Appeals Office; and three additional members with technical and practical expertise.

This recommendation will involve a legislative change, the report explained.

In this type of situation, the panel would review the appeals office’s file on a case and – at its discretion – could meet with the parties concerned before arriving at its decision.

In addition, it is recommended that the panel should approve the appeals office‘s code of practice and would monitor the office‘s performance measures for processing its cases.

The committee is also of the opinion that the department should report to the panel on the length of time taken to respond to requests from the appeals office for information and files – and also report summarised details of the decisions made on internal reviews by the department.

This report should present the data annually on a regional basis, the committee added.

Reporting arrangements

It was explained that the Agriculture Appeals Act provides that the director submits an annual report to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

In addition to this, the committee believes that the director of the appeals office should engage with the Farmers’ Charter of Rights Monitoring Committee in order to facilitate discussion on a number of fronts on an annual basis.

The objective is to reduce the number of errors made by farmers in the submission of their applications under the schemes operated by the department and to ensure that the processing of applications is as efficient and effective as is possible, according to the review committee.

In addition, it is hoped that the involvement of the charter’s monitoring committee should ensure that there is likely to be much more awareness among the farming community of the reviews and appeals avenues open to them if they are dissatisfied with decisions made under the various schemes run by the department, the report added.

Code of practice

The committee went on to recommend that the appeals office should publish a principles-based code of practice, to provide greater transparency and assurance to stakeholders in relation to the operation and independence of the office.

Deputy director

It was also advised that arrangements be put in place to appoint a deputy director, as provided for in legislation.

It is important for business continuity of the appeals office that these arrangements are continuously in place, the report added.

The committee also considers that the deputy director should have a role in quality assurance of appeals processes and consistency of outcomes. This recommendation may involve a legislative change, the committee explained.

Discretion in relation to holding an oral hearing

Meanwhile, the committee considers that an oral hearing of an appeal may not always be the most appropriate, efficient and effective method of processing appeals.

In that regard, it was recommended that an appeals officer has discretion as to whether to hold an oral hearing or not.

However, if a request from an appellant for an oral hearing is rejected, the appellant should be entitled to seek a review of the appeals officer’s decision to the review panel. This recommendation will involve a legislative change, the report confirmed.

Department’s Review Process

As part of the review, the committee also considered the department’s interval review process – even though it is not specifically covered in the committee’s terms of reference.

The internal review process was considered because of the direct impact the output of the review system has on the level of appeals submitted by farmers to the appeals office and the subsequent efficient processing of individual appeals.

The review committee suggests that the department undertakes a comprehensive examination of its internal review process.

The full report from the Agriculture Appeals Act review committee is available on the department’s website.