Discretionary Powers and Controls

In many cases, governmental bodies’ powers are expressed in very broad discretionary terms.  Literally read, the relevant powers seem to give the Minister, department or body concerned a discretion whether to, for example, grant a particular licence or take a particular step.

However many powers which appear to give complete discretion to the administration are in fact circumscribed by principles of justice and reasonableness.  Powers must not be used unreasonably or for an irrelevant purpose.

The exercise of powers by administrative bodies can’t be challenged on the basis that the Court would come to a different decision. However, if the power is exercised in bad faith, dishonestly or unreasonably having regard to irrelevant circumstances or disregarding the underlying legislation policy it may be challenged as unlawful.


Reasonable Basis for Decisions

Broadly speaking legal challenges to administrative decisions may be based on illegality, irrationality procedural impropriety, violation of fundamental rights, lack of proportionality.The existence of an appeal is not a substitute for proper procedures and discretion being properly exercised.

Public authorities must exercise their powers reasonably. The relevant legislation may set out explicit reasons with reference to which a decision is to be made..In order for a decision to be unreasonable to the extent that it may be set aside it would generally have to be so radically different from the principles that no reasonable authority could have come to it.

A public body is generally required to give reasons for its decisions.  They must set out the basis of their decision and the facts relied on.  This is a fundamental Human Rights principle which is now also incorporated in the Freedom of Information Act.

The Court does not substitute its own view of the matter or merits of the issue. The courts do not like to thread in political areas. It is concerned not with the decision but with the decision making process. The Court will look as to whether there he courts do not like to thread in political areas.is a reasonable basis for reaching the conclusion the authority reached.

Standard of Unreasonableness

The Courts will only interfere on the basis of the irrationality of the decision maker in rare and limited cases.  The Courts recognise that generally, the legislation places responsibility for striking the balance between public and private interests on the relevant public body.  Therefore the Courts will only intervene if the decision patently has no basis.

In order for a decision to be unreasonable to the extent that it may be set aside it would generally have to be so radically different from the principles that no reasonable authority could have come to it.

The requisite standard of reasonableness or rationality concerned is sometimes described in terms of the decision being fundamentally at variance with reason and common sense. The decision may be said to be outrageous and defy logic or accepted moral standards such that no sensible person who applied his mind to the question could have decided to have arrived at it.

Bad Faith and Legislative Objectives

Legislation generally has a purpose or policy objective. For example, the planning legislation provides that decisions are made in the interest of proper planning and development, having regard to a long list of factors.

Courts will interpret legislation in the context of its purposes.  Legislation frequently sets out the criteria on which decisions are made.  If the decision maker thereunder takes into account irrelevant considerations or makes a decision for improper purposes then it may be set aside.

There is bad faith is where the public body intends to achieve an object other than that for which the power has been conferred. Where a public body takes steps under one power for another purpose then this will generally be bad faith.  Bad faith is rarely capable of being directly proved.  More commonly what is involved is an honest abuse of power.

If a  practice or even a statutory instrument is untargeted, indiscriminate and unfair and removed from the primary purpose it may be outside the scope of the power to delegate.


In recent years the Courts have looked at the proportionality of decisions.  The means chosen by the administration must be rationally connected to the objective and not be arbitrary unfair or based on unreasonable consideration.

It must impair rights as little as possible and the effects on rights must be proportional to the objective. This criteria probably goes further than unreasonableness and looks at whether there is a proportion between the objective to be achieved and the matter to be dealt with.

Constitutional Rights

The Irish Constitution implies rights for individuals which must be respected in decision making and administrative procedures.

There are certain presumptions that the courts use in the interpretation of legislation.  Legislation is interpreted in a way that is presumed to be constitutional.  Therefore, for example, it is assumed that legislation does not interfere with property rights, personal rights unless this is very clearly stated.

It is presumed that powers must be exercised in conformity with the constitution.  Decisions may be challenged as void if an individual\’s personal constitutional rights are undermined.

Where fundamental constitutional rights such as rights to property, rights to free speech are impinged on then the Courts will look at the administrative action carefully.  Such freedoms cannot be curtailed on irrational or arbitrary grounds.


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