Public set to pay Edwin Poots protocol court costs

Former agriculture minister Edwin Poots. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Former agriculture minister Edwin Poots. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

COURT costs incurred defending Edwin Poots's decision to halt Irish Sea border checks look set to be paid from the public purse.

However, a solicitor for one of the litigants in the case, which found the former agriculture minister acted unlawfully, has argued that responsibility for the legal challenge "lies squarely" with Mr Poots.

The High Court ruled on Thursday that the former DUP leader took an "overtly political" decision in February when he sought to withdraw staff carrying out checks in line with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Poots claimed at the time that according to fresh legal advice, he needed the approval of fellow Stormont ministers to implement the checks. He had been served with a pre-action letter to that effect from loyalist activist Jamie Bryson.

However, Mr Justice Colton found that consent from ministerial colleagues was not required.

Mr Poots has yet to comment publicly on the damning ruling.

The challenge was brought by an unnamed Sinn Féin member, another applicant named Edward Rooney, and Belfast City Council.

Solicitor Ciaran O'Hare of law firm McIvor-Farrell, who acted on behalf of the unnamed Sinn Féin member, said the consequences of the former minister's unlawful act "led to this necessary but costly litigation".

"My client will be seeking costs from the department (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) but there is no doubt that Mr Poots personally made the impugned decisions and acted unlawfully – and therefore the fault lies squarely at his door," he said.

"My client wishes to highlight the fact that Mr Poots took the highly unusual step of personally replying to pre-action legal correspondence from an individual, Mr Jamie Bryson, and my client is of the view that this unusual act demonstrates that Mr Poots’ actions from the beginning were part of what was described in court as an 'ingenious construct' that resulted in this costly litigation.”

A hearing to establish liability for the case's costs will take place in the new year. It has been speculated that the number of legal professionals involved, including former attorney general John Larkin, who defended the South Belfast MLA, mean the costs could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The former minister's department had last night not responded to questions from The Irish News regarding the costs.

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said Mr Poots needed to "explain why he has put public money at risk in defending his own unlawful actions".

"His behaviour is even more shocking when one considers that he and his department had previously acknowledged its own legal obligations to conduct checks," Mr O'Toole said.

"This is not the first time Edwin Poots' conduct has been in question over the protocol, having previously ordered a halt to checks in unusual circumstances in February 2021."