Judge rules RHI scheme companies can be named

The ruling was made on Wednesday morning, but an injunction remains in place until 3pm. Credit: UTV

Companies on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme can be publicly named by a Stormont Department, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Deeny held that there is an overriding public interest in Economy Minister Simon Hamilton releasing the details of corporate bodies on a green energy initiative set to cost the taxpayer up to £490m.

But he prohibited Mr Hamilton from disclosing the names of individuals claiming under the scheme until any objections they had to being identified were properly considered.

However, the deadline of 3pm has since passed without an extension to the injunction being sought, so publication of company names - not individuals - can go ahead.

It was also revealed that one well-known company with seven boilers on the scheme has received more than £300,000 since July 2015.

More than 500 RHI non-domestic operators took legal action in a bid to stop Mr Hamilton disclosing their details.

Members of the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland secured an interim injunction to stop publication pending the outcome of their legal challenge, which claimed the move breaches privacy and data protection laws.

Disclosure would also create a media "feeding frenzy" and lead to a "witch hunt" of individuals who have done nothing wrong, they argued.

But Mr Justice Deeny found that the Minister was not bound by any legal contract and could take the unilateral step of releasing details.

He also found publication was justified under the stated aims of ensuring transparency about all beneficiaries.

The RHI initiative was set up to encourage businesses to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.

But it has been engulfed in controversy and dubbed the 'cash for ash scandal' since it emerged that users could legitimately earn more cash the more fuel they burned.

The scandal led to the collapse of Stormont's power-sharing arrangements, and the uncertainty set to follow the snap Assembly election.

A public inquiry into the whole process is to be chaired by retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.

Mr Hamilton was set to publish the names of RHI operators last month, but his plans were put on hold after the association launched judicial review proceedings.

It was alleged that the minister wanted to release the list to embarrass others and divert attention from any ministerial and departmental responsibility.

Amid suggestions that DUP "cronies" benefited from the scheme, counsel for the association contended that the intention was to have everybody else "tarred with the same brush".

But the judge rejected the assessment of Mr Hamilton's motives when he referred in the Assembly to supporters of other parties being revealed as RHI recipients.

"That does not permit the court to draw a conclusion that the Minister was acting in bad faith or that he did not desire transparency," he pointed out.

Lawyers representing the Department had argued that releasing details of those on the scheme was necessary due to its"seismic" impact on Northern Ireland's political arrangements.

Mr Justice Deeny agreed with their assessment of the potential fall-out.

However, he held that the Department had failed to properly consider any objections from individual recipients who felt disclosing their details was unwarranted.

He ordered that a proper process complying with the Data Protection Act must be carried out before these people can be named.

Granting a short continuation of the interim injunction for instructions on a possible appeal, the judge expressed "mild surprise" that no representatives of the Association were in court for the verdict.