A number of amendments to a new bill dealing with farmers’ appeals process were proposed by the country’s main farm organisations at the Oireachtas agriculture committee this Thursday.

The need for the proposed independent agricultural appeals review panel to have a level of separation from the Department of Agriculture, a robust force majeure clause, a quicker turnaround time for appeal decisions and not making remote oral hearings mandatory, were among the main points made.

At the pre-legislative scrutiny of the agriculture appeals (amendment) bill 2024 in front of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, the four farm organisations overlapped on many issues raised.

Appeals review panel

Vice-president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) John Joe Fitzgerald welcomed the proposed establishment of an independent agricultural appeals review panel, but said those appointed must be truly independent.

“We believe that those who are appointed must be independent and not former employees of an organisation that is a party to the appeal.

“Panel members must have a clear understanding of farming and ideally should have practical experience in farming,” he said.

President of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) Denis Drennan agreed that there must be farmer representation on the panel.

“It is essential for confidence from farmers that they [feel they] would be treated in a fair and reasonable manner,” he said.

Drennan added that the proposed panel - not the Minister for Agriculture - should elect its own vice-chair and set its own regulations.

President of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) Seán McNamara questioned the director or deputy director of the Agriculture Appeals Office having a vote on the panel.

Force majeure

The need for a more flexible force majeure mechanism to be included in the bill was raised by several of the farm organisation representatives present.

President of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Francie Gorman said “it’s hugely, hugely important that a force majeure is incorporated in this bill”.

“For us, that would certainly go a long way to ironing out some of the problems that we have with the appeals panel,” he added.

On force majeure, general secretary of the ICSA Eddie Punch outlined a case he was aware of where a farmer’s cancer treatment was not considered a force majeure because there were two names on the herd number.

“Force majeure is very rigidly interpreted by the Department.

“I can give you examples of cases where cancer, which is a terrible thing in any household, has not been allowed as a force majeure case because of technicalities around application.

“I once saw a case brought to appeal - because the farmer put a second name on the herd number, his cancer treatment was not considered sufficient grounds for force majeure to apply,” he said.

Punch highlighted wording changes the ICSA thinks should be made to the bill to broaden the scope of force majeure.

“The proposed legislation says that you may be entitled to go to the review panel ‘by reason of some mistake having been made in relation to the law or the facts’.

“I think, from our point of view in [the] ICSA, there should also be ‘or by reason of the failure to take adequate account of the special circumstances pertaining to the case’,” he said.

Time frames

Several of the farm organisations also said the bill needs to be amended to allow farmers a longer window to make an appeal and a quicker turn-around on decisions.

Drennan said the ICMSA was proposing “at least a 12-month time frame for a farmer to appeal his or her case”.

“But, from the day the appeal is launched, there should be a six-month time frame for a hearing and decision, so that no farmer is left in limbo,” he added.

Remote hearing

The wording in the bill around remote hearings was highlighted by farm organisations as needing to change.

Gorman said the IFA was suggesting an amendment to the bill where it provides that “the appeals officer may hold any oral hearing remotely by electronic means”.

The IFA president said this should be done “only where it is agreed by the appellant”.

“Given our aging demographic, connectivity issues and the potential need to exchange supporting documentation, electronic means may not be the most suitable mechanism for all appeal hearings,” he said.

Chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture Jackie Cahill said he expects the legislation to “proceed at pace” and that Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue will be in front of the committee next week discussing the bill.