Important Clarification from High Court of Classes of Decision that can be Judicially Reviewed
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The High Court (per Barrett J) yesterday handed down a highly significant decision regarding the circumstances in which a decision of a State entity is amenable to judicial review. The decision also is highly significant, particularly in the education sphere, in relation to the extent of discretion or otherwise available to such State bodies in the implementation of their governing rules and regulations. The Court found that the decision of the University to issue a deferral outcome in end of year results for a student who had not been able to carry out a particular mandatory placement during the academic year (due to injury) was not of a nature that made it amenable to examination by the Court in judicial review proceedings, but was instead simply an application by the University of its rules and regulations as part of its private law contract with the student in question.
RDJ LLP, together with Brian Kennedy SC and Caren Geoghegan BL, successfully acted for the University in the proceedings which progressed from commencement to trial in a less than two week window given their urgency (related to the imminent start of the University’s academic year).
The Applicant was a student in the University’s Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) Programme who completed her 3rd year in May 2021. It was common case she was an excellent student. Due to a sporting injury however, she was unable to complete one school placement module during the course of her 3rd year and the University’s applicable rules and regulations provided in such circumstances she would have to attend and pass that school placement module in the academic year starting in September 2022 instead – the consequence being that she would only be able to progress to Year 4 in the academic year commencing September 2023. The Applicant contended that the University had discretion to allow her to carry out her school placement at alternative times (outside the normal times provided for such placements) and relied on similar exemptions given to students subject to bereavement and during the Covid 19 emergency.
Essentially Barrett J. found that the decision was not one capable of being reviewed by the Court.
Barrett J noted there were previous cases between Universities and students where decisions had been deemed amenable to judicial review – but he further noted that in most such cases there was a disciplinary issue concerned (which was absent here). In her submissions, the Applicant had argued that notwithstanding that she was essentially asserting private rights, there was nonetheless sufficient public element to the issues to render the decisions she complained of amenable to judicial review. She relied in particular in this regard on the fact that the B.Ed. degree was recognised by the Teaching Council - a body established by statute - to allow subsequent registration of graduates as primary school teachers. However, Barrett J rejected this argument and pointed out that in previous cases which had rejected the amenability of decisions against students to judicial review, such as Rajah v The Royal College of Surgeons, there was a similar public law element (in Rajah the Medical Council were in an analogous position to the Teaching Council in the present case). He specifically found that the fact the University “… was established by statute or that it offered a degree which is structured in such a manner that a graduate holding that degree can become an accredited national school-teacher does not affect the fact that the matters at issue … are entirely private in nature. There is not a sufficiently public element presenting in this case to render the issues that [the Applicant] complains of amenable to judicial review”.
The Court then went further to indicate that, even had there been such an amenability to judicial review, the facts disclosed did not in any event provide a basis for granting any of the reliefs sought. Specifically in this regard he noted that there was “no bad faith or malice at play in how [the University] has conducted itself”, that it had closely followed its own rules and regulations, it had engaged in extensive correspondence and had had all times consistently informed the Applicants of its position.
In particular the Court found that an argument made by the Applicant that the University had a broad discretion, notwithstanding the clear provisions of its rules and regulations, to have accommodated the Applicant carrying out the necessary school placement in time to advance to Year 4 in the academic year 2022/2023 was misconceived. The Court found simply that “..no such discretionary power exists under [the University’s] rules….”.
Lastly the Court found that suggestions that the University had delayed in providing a response to various queries from the Applicant, and that it had failed in its duty to give reasons were also rejected.
This is a decision that will be broadly welcomed by education institutions at all levels, and State institutions generally, providing clarity that, save generally where matters relate to discipline, the application by them of their own internal rules and procedures are not matters amenable to judicial review but are simply private law contractual matters as between the institution and its student. Moreover, such institutions will similarly welcome clarification that they are on relatively safe ground in closely following their own rules and procedures and that they do not have to, nor necessarily have discretion to, bend same even where they encounter a difficult situation such as the present.
 Galbraith v DCU, High Court per Barrett J, 14 September, 2022
  1 I.R. 384