The department responsible for the failed RHI scheme received a non-stop savaging for its “sheer incompetence” on Wednesday, as the first instalment of the judicial review into the scheme got under way.
The hearing was essentially a one-man show as barrister Gerald Simpson QC – representing RHI claimants – spoke largely uninterrupted for over four hours, in what was the opening salvo of a case which it is thought will last a number of days, possibly well into next week.
The claimants are challenging the cuts made to their RHI payments earlier this year after the scale of the scheme’s mismanagement emerged.
The barrister defending the Department for the Economy (the successor to DETI, which had run the scheme) will speak in coming hearings.
But on Wednesday morning the small, hot commercial courtroom in Belfast’s High Court – which was full with just 25-or-so people watching proceedings – heard Mr Simpson quote in detail from masses of documents which he said backed his case.
One RHI claimant who watched throughout, Amanda Maxwell, said his characterisation of “incompetence at every level” had “nailed it”.
The department was derided repeatedly, with Mr Simpson branding it “ostrich-like” in its approach to RHI’s pitfalls.
The word “incompetence” was used by him perhaps around a dozen times; for example, when he told the judge “the sheer incompetence of [those behind RHI] is now to be visited on those who invested their own money in the scheme”.
He described the idea that this is fair as “unthinkable”, and at one point said: “If it was a private organisation saying that in court, your lordship wouldn’t give them the time of day.”
He said there had been “bandied about all sorts of allegations of fraud” concerning use of the scheme.
He then gave an example of a chicken producer who had decided to install an RHI heating system.
To aid this, and an expansion including an extra RHI-heated shed, they had secured loans of over £400,000 – and now, as an honest user of the scheme, felt they had been dealt with “unfairly” by the cuts to their set subsidy.
Mr Simpson said that ever since the RHI programme began in 2012 there had been a “panoply” of powers available to the department to take action against people misusing the system, but it seemed not to have deployed them.
He also said the department apparently forgot about an indication from the Treasury in 2011 that there would be financial consequences for Northern Ireland of any overspend, and that it was “quite clear they thought London is going to pay for it”.
Amanda Maxwell, one of the RHI claimants who had featured in the News Letter in recent weeks due to their financial difficulties after the government curbed the payments, was among those watching from the back bench throughout, occasionally murmuring agreement with the barrister.
Afterwards Mrs Maxwell, a poultry farmer from the Ballygawley area, said: “I think Mr Simpson nailed it when he said what he did – incompetence at every level.
“And hopefully that’ll be shown over the next couple of days, [and] the legitimate users of the scheme will get justice.
“This has been a horrendous year. We’re honest workers. We’ve been at this 30 years.”
Asked if Wednesday was the first step in getting the redress she seeks, she said: “I’d hope so.
“But you never know. I want to hear what the judge says now. He’s the only man I have faith in.”