RHI scandal: Boiler owners’ challenge to tariff cuts put back

Simon Hamilton drew up new RHI regulations in January in a bid to cut the cost of the scheme
Simon Hamilton drew up new RHI regulations in January in a bid to cut the cost of the scheme

A High Court battle to ensure Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payments continue for up to 20 years has been put back to June.

A group of boiler owners were set to begin their legal challenge to former economy minister Simon Hamilton’s plan to cut tariffs paid to those on the botched scheme later this month.

But a judge agreed to put the hearing back following submissions from their lawyers.

Counsel representing more than 500 members of the Renewable Heat Association NI Ltd indicated they could cope for a few weeks with any uncertainty after new regulations come into effect next month.

The controversy surrounding RHI was among the issues cited for the triggering of the recent Assembly election, which saw the DUP’s majority over Sinn Fein cut to a mere one seat.

The RHI scheme was set up to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems.

But with operators legitimately able to earn more cash the more fuel they burned, the projected cost to the public purse has been put at £490m.

The scandal led to the collapse of Stormont’s power-sharing administration and last week’s snap Assembly election.

A public inquiry chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin is set to begin examining the development and roll-out of the flawed green energy initiative established by the Executive in 2012.

Before Mr Hamilton left office he secured a ruling that companies on the scheme can be publicly named.

However, members of the association are pressing ahead with a separate judicial review of his cost-cutting proposals.

In January Mr Hamilton set out revised 2017 RHI Regulations in a bid to in a bid to ease the financial burden.

Lawyers for the association are set to claim this was an illegal step against boiler owners with 20-year contracts.

Part of their case is that 2017 regulations are rendered unlawful because they were not discussed and agreed on by the Executive.

In court on Tuesday, Mr Justice Deeny expressed apprehension at making a decision on any facts that are also to be examined by the public inquiry.

But Gerald Simpson QC, for the association, stressed that much of the legal challenge will focus on the period before the original 2012 regulations came into force.

With counsel for the department agreeing to the adjournment, the judge listed the case for a four-day hearing in June.

He added: “It’s a judicial review, so the natural event is there would be no oral evidence.”