Irish High Court rules County Council acted intra vires in impounding a horse and levying fees for its return

The Irish High Court has held that Laois County Council (the Council) were entitled to capture and detain a horse and demand a fee before returning it to its owner under the Control of Horses Act 1996 (the 1996 Act) and associated Bye-Laws.

The applicant was involved in a road traffic accident as a result of which he fell off his horse. The Council impounded the horse following the incident. This was the second time in a 12-month period that the applicant’s horse was impounded by the Council. The applicant was informed that he would have to pay a fee before the horse would be returned to him. The applicant sought judicial review of the Council’s decision to impound the horse and challenged the Council’s right to demand fees before returning the horse to him.

The Court held that the Council was empowered to impound the horse under section 37 of the 1996 Act. The Council was also entitled to immediately dispose of the horse should it wish to do so under sections 39 and 40 of the 1996 Act as the horse had been detained twice in a 12 month period. The Court stated that the Council was empowered to make Bye-Laws requiring that fees be paid before returning an impounded horse under section 39(2) of the 1996 Act. Under the Laois County Council Control of Horses Bye-Laws 2012, the Council was empowered to demand fees before returning the horse, including the cost of collecting and transporting the horse, the cost of providing it with care and sustenance, the cost of veterinary attention and all costs incurred by the Council. The Bye-Laws also empowered the Council to dispose of the horse if these fees were not paid. The Court held that the charges levied on the applicant were in accordance with the Bye-Laws and that the Council acted intra vires in exercising these powers.

The applicant argued that because he was not responsible for the road traffic accident, he should not be penalised by having to pay fees to the Council. The Court refused to read a mens rea requirement into the 1996 Act. Citing Burke v South Dublin County Council, the Court held that just because the owner is not at fault, does not mean he is not obliged to pay the costs incurred. The Council has a duty to keep the public safe from roaming horses and if the applicant was not at fault, he could include the costs of retrieving his horse in a claim against a defendant or the Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland (MIBI).

The Court noted that all the Council’s decisions were appealable, but no appeal was lodged by the applicant. While the detention of an animal, the property of a private citizen, is a “draconian measure”, the Court held it is a necessary one to be carried out by the Council in line with the relevant legislation. The Court  concluded that the Council acted reasonably and lawfully in impounding the horse and acted intra vires in demanding the fees levied by them.

Click here to read the full judgment in O’Donoghue v Laois County Council.



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