Court of Appeal quashes proposals for redrawing electoral constituencies in Northern Ireland
Proposals for redrawing electoral constituencies in Northern Ireland are to be quashed, the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Senior judges identified a legal failure to fully consider all responses before the Boundary Commission for NI published its final recommendations.
They also said inadequate reasons were given for using a rule which allowed the body to shift away from electoral quota requirements.
The verdict represents a further victory for west Belfast man Patrick Lynch, who brought the challenge to the commission’s proposals.
Plans published in September 2018 involved cutting the number of parliamentary seats from 18 to 17, as part of a wider move to reduce MPs at Westminster from 650 to 600.
But unlike earlier proposals which would have meant Belfast dropping to three constituencies, the city retained four seats under the final recommendations.
The wider planned constituency shake-up provoked political controversy, with Sinn Féin criticising changes they claimed would leave a number of constituencies without any nationalist representation.
Central to the legal challenge is a rule within the relevant legislation which allows the commission to deviate from a 5 per cent range of the UK electoral quota when considering constituency size.
Lawyers for Mr Lynch claimed the commission acted unlawfully and unfairly.
They argued that the authority had shifted away from its provisional recommendations by relying on the rule without a proper legal basis.
It was claimed the commission had suddenly and radically changed direction in its final recommendations report (FRR).
Lawyers for the body under challenge insisted changes to the initial proposals were in response to “a healthy and procedurally correct consultation process”.
In May last year the High Court held that the commission had fettered its discretion by failing to fully consider consultation responses received in the final stage of the statutory process it had followed.
Despite that ruling, Mr Lynch appealed in a bid to have the report quashed.
With a new bill on UK parliamentary boundaries now tabled at Westminster, the commission contended that the case could be rendered academic.
However, Mr Justice Horner stressed the public interest and importance of the issues.
“This task has the potential to affect how the population of Northern Ireland is represented at Westminster, and as a consequence to some extent how it is governed for some years,” he said.
Dealing with the appeal, the judge said the commission had inadvertently “taken a wrong turn” in consideration of written representations following a revised proposals report.
The final report was “vitiated by procedural unfairness”, the court affirmed.
Mr Justice Horner concluded: “Our decision on the error of law issue only serves to reinforce our conclusion that the proper course is to quash the FRR and send it back to the commission for lawful reconsideration.”
No such reassessment will be required, however, if new legislation is passed which ensures the boundary review is abandoned and the final recommendations unimplemented.
Following the verdict, Mr Lynch’s lawyer, Eoin Murphy of Ó Muirigh Solicitors, said: “This affirmation from the Court of Appeal will go a long way to clarifying the obligations imposed upon this or any future Boundary Commission.”