In December 2012, the Supreme Court overturned a High Court decision whereby decision-makers have a duty to provide reasons for their decisions. This article reviews the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in this regard in the case of Mallak v Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Recent Supreme Court jurisprudence has further developed the increasing scrutiny of public bodies in the public interest, despite the limited resources available to them, by finding, unanimously, that decision-makers do have a duty to give reasons for their administrative decisions.

The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in this regard was delivered by Fennelly J., on 6 December, 2012 in Mallak v Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

In overturning the decision of Cooke J. in the High Court, and quashing the Minister’s decision to refuse an application for a certificate of naturalisation, the Court held that the Minister was under a duty to provide the reasons for his decision. The Court remitted the matter to the Minister for fresh consideration of the appellant’s application for naturalisation.

The appellant, a Syrian national residing in the State with refugee status, had applied and been refused a certificate of naturalisation. No reasons were given by the Minister in reliance on his “absolute discretion” to grant such certificates as provided for in the relevant legislation [1]. No appeals process was available; however, the appellant was informed that he could make a further application at any time.

The appellant became aware, through a data protection access request, of certain documents that he had not been aware of or given the opportunity to address. He challenged the Minister’s decision, by judicial review, on the grounds that failure to give any reasons was unlawful [2] and unconstitutional as it effectively frustrated his ability to have that decision reviewed by the Courts.

The High Court held that there was no general obligation at common law to give reasons for administrative decisions and found that the Minister’s absolute discretion “quite literally” meant that the Minister did not need to have, or to give, any reason for his decision.

However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision, noting that there was no general proposition that a decision-maker is never under a duty to give reasons for a decision, and that there were numerous cases where administrative decisions were found to be defective for failing to give reasons.

The Court held [3] that the Minister’s “absolute discretion” did not remove the need to have a reason for his decision, as that would be an arbitrary power. As a rule of law, all decision-makers must act fairly and rationally which meant that they must not make decisions without reasons. Whilst the Minister’s statutory “absolute discretion” could be relevant to the extent of the Court’s review, it could not justify a decision-maker acting beyond its powers.

The Court accepted that the grant or refusal of a certificate of naturalisation was a matter of privilege rather than of right. However, an applicant has a right to apply to the Court to challenge the validity of that decision.

Otherwise the obligation on the Minister to act lawfully and constitutionally in making that decision would be ineffective. The Court held that the appellant was effectively deprived of any meaningful opportunity to reapply for naturalisation, or to ascertain if he had grounds for judicial review, in circumstances where he was completely ignorant of the Minister’s reasons for his decision. By extension, the Courts could not effectively exercise their power to review that decision.

The Court held that there was an emerging commonly held view that persons affected by administrative decisions have a right to know the reasons on which they are based, in short, to understand them. At the very least, the decision-maker must be able to justify his/her decision. This principle is reflected in section 18(1) of the Freedom of the Information Acts 1997 & 2003 and Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which guarantees a right to good administration.

However, the Court did note that, if the decision-making process is fair, open and transparent and the affected person has been enabled to respond to the concerns of the decision-maker, there may be situations where the reasons for the decision are obvious and that effective judicial review is not precluded.