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Litigation

Resolving your disputes with the Rural Payments Agency

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is an executive agency of DEFRA who are responsible for paying out over £2 billion each year to support the farming and food sector. These payments include the Basic Payment Scheme, Single Payment Scheme, the Countryside Stewardship, and the Environmental Stewardship. The RPA mandate carries with it a substantial burden which necessitates a high level of timely and precise service delivery. Despite this, there are reports of widespread delays to payments which should have been made and at the required level.

Farmers are increasingly having to challenge the problems created under the RPA and the purpose of this article is to consider the prescribed dispute resolution process which must be considered before litigation is contemplated. Indeed, each step of the dispute resolution process must be followed prior to litigation being commenced or the complainant faces the risk of being exposed to costs for not complying with the process.

Stage 1 – the Complaint

The first stage of the dispute resolution process is to set your complaint down in writing and send it to the RPA. It is beneficial to check the address for submitting your complaint as the RPA have several complaint hubs depending on which scheme it relates to.

When it comes to setting down your complaint the RPA have created a bespoke form called a CA4 which should be completed. Within this there is provision for you to set down:

  • what has happened;
  • how this has affected your business; and,
  • how you would like the dispute to be settled.

With form CA4 you can provide supplementary documentation which can be beneficial as it evidences your dispute.

Alongside the form, it is beneficial if you include a covering letter with your full name, address and telephone number and your reference number, for example your Single Business Identifier (SBI), Personal Identifier (PI), or County Parish Holding (CPH) number.

Once the RPA have received a complaint they are required to acknowledge receipt. The RPA will then investigate the complaint and attempt to settle it for you, however, if it cannot be settled then the RPA are obliged to explain why the complaint will not be upheld.

Stage 2 – the Appeal

In the event that your complaint cannot be resolved to your satisfaction then you are entitled to make an appeal.

Appeals concerning the RPA are heard by the Independent Agricultural Appeals Panel (the ‘Panel‘). The Panel comprises of independent experts instructed by the Minister of State for Farming to hear appeals. They will consider the appeal and may wish to hear from you or your representative in person before making a recommendation to the Minister of State for Farming, however, you can elect to have your appeal heard only on the papers. The decision of the Panel is conveyed to the Minister of State who in turn announces the decision.  The Minister’s decision is final.

When making the appeal, you will need to complete Form CA1. Within this form you will need to document the basis of your appeal and why you disagree with the decision of the RPA. You are entitled to provide further information to the Panel and include supporting documentation.

When making the appeal you will need to provide a cheque to cover the appeal fee. You will need to check with the RPA website to ensure that you pay the correct fee as the figures do vary from time to time.

Stage 3 – Judicial Review

Although the Minister’s decision is final, you may wish to challenge that decision through the Courts on the basis of a judicial review. There are three possible grounds to bring a judicial review on:

  1. where there is an error in law – for example the RPA acts outside of its statutory powers, takes into account irrelevant matters or fails to consider relevant ones;
  2. where there is procedural impropriety – that is unfairness in the decision making process or a refusal give inadequate reasons; and/or,
  3. where the decision is irrational, that is so unreasonable as to be unsustainable, or where there is an abuse of power.

If you wish to commence a judicial review it is imperative that you contact a solicitor within a few days of the decision of the Panel being published. The reason for this is that there is a relatively short window of opportunity (three months) in which the preliminary steps to litigation must be complied with before proceedings are commenced. It is important also that you engage with a solicitor to consider the risks associated with litigation and how best these can be managed and mitigated.

A Final Thought

There is perhaps a final, extremely rational, question that a farmer in dispute with the RPA may ask; namely, should I pursue this – I am already far too busy to deal with more administration?

Well that is entirely understandable, however, from a purely commercial perspective the answer is if your business is entitled to a payment and either that payment is undervalued or contrary to what you and your professional agents expect then you should seek redress.

If you have any concerns relating to a dispute with the Rural Payments Agency then, please contact Adam Chaffer, Commercial Litigation Solicitor at Samuel Phillips Law on 0191 232 8451 or adamchaffer@samuelphillips.co.uk.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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