The Doctrine Of Legitimate Expectation: Recent Developments

25 March 2008
Category: Legal Articles

[A version of this article was first published in the March, 2008 issue (No.46) of Public Affairs Ireland Journal.]

The expression “legitimate expectation" is familiar to many who operate in the public sector, and is frequently tossed about with happy abandon, as if its meaning and effect were entirely clear and simple.

As with many legal doctrines, however, it is fair to say that there is some complexity to the matter, and also that the law is still developing on a case-by-case basis.The doctrine is certainly not as simple as a person having an enforceable right to require a public body in all circumstances to deliver upon an express or implied representation that it would act in a particular way.

It is generally accepted now that, in order to succeed in a claim based on a failure of a public body to respect a legitimate expectation, the three matters set out by Mr. Justice Fennelly in the Supreme Court decision in Glencar Exploration v Mayo County Council[1] need to be established:

“Firstly, the public authority must have made a statement or adopted a position amounting to a promise or representation, express or implied, as to how it will act in respect of an identifiable area of its activity.  I will call this the representation.

Secondly, the representation must be addressed or conveyed either directly or indirectly to an identifiable person or group of persons, affected annually or potentially in such a way that it forms part of a transaction definitively entered into or a relationship between that person or group and the public authority , or that the person or group has acted on the faith of the representation. 

 Thirdly, it must be such as to create an expectation reasonably entertained by the person or group that the public body will abide by the representation to the extent that it would be unjust to permit the public authority to resile from it.”

 Mr. Justice Fennelly went on to say that

“[r]efinements or extensions of these propositions are obviously possible.  Equally, they are qualified by considerations of the public interest, including the principle that freedom to exercise properly a statutory power is respected.  However, the propositions I have endeavoured to formulate seem to me to be preconditions for the right to invoke the doctrine.”

The reference by Mr. Justice Fennelly to the principle that persons in whom a statutory power or discretion is vested ought to be able freely to exercise that power or discretion properly is a reference to a point of central importance and debate in this area.

In this regard, a distinction has traditionally been drawn between a legitimate expectation, on the one hand, that certain procedures would be followed as a result of some representation, scheme or policy, and, on the other, that a substantive benefit or right would be conferred or obtained when some statutory discretion came to be exercised. 

Making a claim based on the latter has not traditionally met with success.  It is seen as undesirable and incorrect in principle that the reasonable and proper exercise by a decision-maker of a statutorily-conferred discretion be fettered by any expectation previously held out by him to a particular person or group of persons.

The very traditional distinction, therefore, is between the doctrine having procedural, rather than substantive, effect, the latter not being possible where any impermissible fettering of future decision-making involving the exercise of a statutory power is involved.

As Mr. Justice Costello said in Tara Prospecting Limited v Minister for Energy[2]:

“In cases involving the exercise of a discretionary statutory power, the only legitimate expectation relating to the conferring of a benefit that can be inferred from words or conduct is a conditional one, namely, that a benefit will be conferred provided that at the time the minister considers that it is a proper exercise of the statutory power, in light of the current policy, to grant it.  Such a conditional expectation cannot give rise to an enforceable right to the benefit should it later be refused by the minister in the public interest.”

In the recent High Court decision in Cork Opera House Plc v The Revenue Commissioners[3], Mr. Justice Hedigan had found that the applicant for judicial review was wrong in law in contending that the Revenue Commissioners had the power to grant it a retail licence to sell beer, wines and spirits under an Act of 1835, and that it thus did not need to apply to the District Court in the normal way.  Having so found, he turned his attention to the claim that, even if this was so, the applicant nevertheless had an enforceable legitimate expectation that the Revenue would continue to act as they had done for many years, (incorrectly) granting such a licence under the 1835 Act:

“[L]egitimate expectation cannot prevail against a statute.  It cannot operate to confer upon a statutory authority a power which that authority does not have under the terms of the relevant statute.”

In this connection, he cited the decision of the Supreme Court in Wiley v The Revenue Commissioners[4], in which the applicant had sought (and failed) to enforce by way of legitimate expectation a right to the continuation of the Revenue’s previous practice of paying him refunds of excise duty to which he was not, properly speaking, entitled.  In that case, the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Finlay, stated that

“…this applicant could not pursue on the basis of expectation a remedy which would involve the carrying out by the statutory authority, the Revenue Commissioners, of activities which they were not empowered to carry out, and the payment or repayment of monies which they were not empowered to pay or repay.”

However, there has been some debate recently as to the extent to which it can be said that a legitimate expectation can indeed relate - or ought to be capable with appropriate flexibility, depending on the circumstances, of relating - to a substantive benefit, rather than merely to an entitlement to have a process conducted in a particular way.

There is now some increasing support for the view that the traditional approach is unduly restrictive, and that there is no reason, in logic or principle, why the doctrine cannot be successfully invoked so as to declare a person entitled, in an appropriate case, not simply to fair procedures, but to the benefit which he was seeking in the particular case. 

However, even on the recent authorities, this expanded view has not yet been applied in such a way as to permit the doctrine to require that a statutorydiscretion be exercised in a particular way, and, hence, the issue of how this might not result in the courts violating the separation of powers doctrine, and taking it upon themselves to exercise a discretion intended by the Oireachtas to be vested in, and exercised by, another person, has not been squarely dealt with. 

Nonetheless, the courts are refining the doctrine, and inching forward, and there are signs that there may be some broadening of the principle in the future as a result.

For example, in the recent High Court decision of Mr. Justice Clarke in Lett & Company Limited v Wexford Borough Corporation, the Minister for Communications, etc. & Anor.[5], the Court declared a party entitled to a substantive benefit, by looking carefully at the source of the substantive benefit claimed, and emphasising that, whilst substantive in nature (the granting of compensation) it was not underpinned by any statutory provision, and thus, not subject to the usual restriction in that regard.  The three Glencar criteria were present, and there were no countervailing ‘negatives’ to undo the conclusion that the legitimate expectation of compensation ought to be enforced[6].  The judge also pointed out that the case was one seeking compensation by reason of an enforceable legitimate expectation to receive compensation, rather than one for damages for breach of legitimate expectation, which might have involved an uncharted proposition.

Furthermore, in Power v The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs[7], it was acknowledged that the relevant Minister was entitled generally to alter the terms of a non-statutory scheme providing for continued social welfare payments to persons returning to full-time education, to henceforth exclude payments during summer holidays.  However, Mr. Justice MacMenamin found that a person who had, before the change in the scheme, returned to such education on the basis of the payments continuing for the duration of his course, including holiday periods, was entitled to a declaration that the decision of the Minister to implement the changes in the scheme was contrary to his legitimate expectation.  In that regard, Mr. Justice MacMenamin said that, in a case such as this, involving a non-statutory discretionary power, a balancing exercise could, and had to be carried out by the Court between the interest of the claimant in continuing to receive that which had clearly been held out to him, on the one hand, and the public interest in ensuring the unfettered exercise by the Minister of his discretionary decision-making, on the other.  Having come down on the side of the applicant, a substantive benefit was thus enforced by the Court.

Whether this type of balancing exercise might in the future be extended by the Courts in particular circumstances to cases involving the exercise of statutorily-based discretionary powers, remains to be seen.

In this area, it has also been suggested that the existence of a policy does not carry with it an entitlement to prevent the policy-maker from changing that policy - particularly where there is evidence of a rational and reasonable basis for doing so, including public interest considerations.

The doctrine of legitimate expectation may, however, require that the way in which policy changes are effected does not breach existing legitimate expectations.  In the recent High Court decision in Glenkerrin Homes v Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council[8], for example, the plaintiff was held to have had a legitimate expectation that the relevant policy in that case would not change without reasonable notice having been given to that effect.  In an instructive passage, Mr. Justice Clarke stated as follows:

“It is clear from the passage from Glencar Exploration referred to above that the promise or representation may be expressed or implied. I am satisfied that an implied representation can derive from the universal following of a particular practice for a prolonged period of time. It is, of course, important to note that the executive enjoys a constitutional entitlement to change policy. Furthermore bodies exercising a statutory role (such as Dun Laoghaire Rathdown in this case) also enjoy an entitlement to alter the policy within which they exercise their statutory functions subject only to the overall requirement that whatever policies are adopted must be consistent with their statutory role as defined. It is clear, therefore, that a legitimate expectation cannot arise to the effect that a policy will not be changed. Thus in Hempenstall v. Minister for Environment [1994] 2 I.R. 20, Costello J. determined that notwithstanding the fact that a new policy in respect of the issuing of taxi licences would have the effect of very significantly reducing the value of existing licences, nonetheless the overriding entitlement to change policy prevented a legitimate expectation arising. I should, therefore, emphasise that the existence of a longstanding practice does not give rise to any legitimate expectation that that practice will not change. However where third parties reasonably arrange their affairs by reference to such a practice it seems to me that such third parties are entitled to rely upon an expectation that the practice will not be changed without reasonable notice being given. The notice that would be required is such as would reasonably allow those who have conducted their affairs in accordance with the practice to consider and implement an alternative means for dealing with the issues arising.”

Also, from a reading of the Lett and Power, cases, it seems that if a particular policy is represented to a particular person in relation to a particular set of circumstances, it may be that the policy-maker may be stuck with that policy vis-à-vis that person, but be free to resile from it in relation to the public generally.

Again, future developments in the legitimate expectation doctrine will reveal whether these questions will be determined by the application and outcome of a balancing process involving a weighing of competing considerations of relevance, including the public interest, and whether the traditionally rigid dividing lines will continue to be eroded.

Attribute to Niall Michel, Partner, Mason Hayes & Curran.

Niall Michel is a partner and head of the public and administrative law unit of Mason Hayes & Curran. For more information, please contact Niall at or + 353 1 614 5000. The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice. Mason Hayes & Curran ( is a leading business law firm with offices in Dublin, London and New York.

© Copyright Mason Hayes & Curran 2008. All rights reserved.


[1][2002] I.R., 84.

[2][1993] I.L.R.M., 770.

[3][2007] I.E.H.C., 388.  High Court, unreported, 21 November, 2007.

[4][1994] 2 I.R., 160.

[5][2007] I.E.H.C., 195.

[6]Such as whether the expectation was ‘legitimate’ at all, as in the Wiley case, where it was not considered legitimate for the applicant to expect that past errors would be continued into the future, and such as whether the Minister would be free to change policy generally with regard to the matter, whilst still delivering on this particular party’s expectation.

[7] [2006] I.E.H.C., 170; [2007] 1 I.L.R.M., 109.

[8][2007] I.E.H.C., 298.

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