Meagher v Minister for Social Protection: Court interprets a social welfare statute strictly, as it would a criminal or tax statute

imagesAs PRSI contributions are compulsory, as contributors have a statutory right to a pension and as failure of employers to comply can be a criminal offence, the Court (without holding it must) interpreted the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 literally and strictly, as it would a tax or criminal statute [35] (judgment).

Background

S 109 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 provides that a self-employed person who became a first time contributor before reaching their 62nd birthday, who made an average contributions of not less than 48 per year after that and made 260 contributions before reaching their 66th birthday qualified for a contributory half pension. S (22) of the Act provides that where a contributor ceases to be a self-employed person, does not become an employed contributor and has paid the amount for which they are liable that year will be regarded as having paid a contribution for each week of that year.

Meagher was 61 years old in April 1992 when he became a first time contributor. By April 1996 he had paid 208 contributions. There were 13 weeks between then and his 66th birthday on the 4th of July that year, when he reached pensionable age. He paid his full liability as per the Act for that year.

Meagher had previously made two unsuccessful applications for a contributory pension. In this case he had applied for a contributory half pension. After it was refused and he had gone through the appeals process, he applied for judicial review of the decision to refuse. He argued for a purposive interpretation of the 2005 Act. He was under 62 years old before contributions began, he had made more than 48 contributions each year and he paid his full tax liability for the year he turned 66 (effectively, he argued, making 52 contributions for that year). He argued that if the Act is not interpreted as allowing his full yearly contribution for the last year there is no logic to setting the age before which to start contributing at 62 instead of 61, as it would not be possible otherwise to make 260 contributions before becoming entitled to receive a pension. Therefore he met all the criteria.

Writing for the Court, though, McKechnie J drew an analogy between this Act and a criminal or tax statute. Following Kennedy CJ from The Revenue Commissioners v Doorley & Ors “that unless a person was squarely within the express provisions, he stood outside it”. Although the Minister could not explain the anomaly outlined by Meagher, the Court agreed that a person cannot make contributions after the age at which they become entitled to receive a pension, Meagher did not make 260 contributions before he reached that age and satisfaction of two conditions does not extend to satisfaction of all three conditions. The Court therefore dismissed the appeal.

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