Compelling public interest justified cutting the cost of a botched green energy scheme in Northern Ireland, a High Court judge has ruled.
Critical mistakes meant businesses were enjoying an “unacceptably high” return from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), Justice Adrian Colton added.
Political disagreements over the project encouraging largely rural firms to burn eco-friendly fuel led to the collapse of the power sharing institutions earlier this year.
If the original 2012 scheme had not been amended it would have cost Northern Ireland’s public budget close to £700 million, the judge said, with “severe consequences”.
He said: “There is a compelling public interest justifying interference with the rights of the affected persons.”
He dismissed a legal challenge to changes imposing a cap on the spiralling payments earlier this year, adding: “I accept that there is an obvious and significant public interest in ensuring that expenditure on the scheme remains within HMT (Treasury) budgets.”
The 2017 regulations seek to address mistakes which led to the original high rate of return and will still provide an average exceeding the anticipated 12%, the judge added.
He said most operators have already received more than their original outlay in payments.
Boiler owners had argued that they undertook substantial capital investments, borrowing on the basis of a binding contract with the state, and that altering that agreement was unlawful.
Chicken and mushroom farmers are among those who participated in the RHI, using subsidised boilers to heat their sheds. The legal action was launched on their behalf by the Renewable Heat Association.
Outside court, its executive chairman Andrew Trimble said the judgment will worsen the difficult position facing agri-food businesses while Brexit looms.
“The whole economics of the renewable sector will be significantly stressed by this.”
In court, Stormont’s Economy Department claimed it was legally entitled to alter the payments and the judge concurred.
He said: “The circumstances of extreme political urgency and practical impossibility created a unique imperative on the respondent (the department) to act before the dissolution of the Assembly.”
The Assembly collapsed after Sinn Fein’s late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the DUP’s handling of the RHI.
Months of negotiations have not resurrected the institutions and a public inquiry is probing the events of the RHI saga.
The judge said: “I recognise that the introduction and operation of the RHI scheme has had a damaging effect on public confidence in good administration in this jurisdiction.
“There is a compelling public interest in permitting the department to correct the obvious errors and flaws in the scheme it introduced.”