North Yorkshire poultry farmers are waiting for a judge’s ruling after becoming embroiled in a High Court fight with ministers over compensation for birds culled because of avian flu.

A group of producers has taken legal action against Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Steve Barclay.

Lawyers representing them have told a judge that Mr Barclay’s department’s “assessment” of compensation was “unlawful” – and that a policy relating to compensation was also “unlawful”.

Ministers are fighting the claim and say it should be dismissed.

Bird flu court caseProducers were taking legal action against Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Steve Barclay (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Mrs Justice Hill on Wednesday finished overseeing a trial at the High Court in London.

Barrister Malcolm Birdling, who represented claimant poultry farmers, told the judge, in a written case outline, that a secretary of state had powers under animal health legislation to “condemn to slaughter” healthy birds in order to curb the spread of avian flu subject to an obligation to pay compensation.

He said payment decisions had been made under a policy that producers would be compensated for “healthy birds actually culled” as opposed to “healthy birds condemned to be culled”.

Mr Birdling argued that the approach had been wrong.

Lawyers representing claimant producers said farmers had suffered “devastating” losses and livelihoods had been “threatened”.

Chickens and ducks Farmers’ union the NFU said the litigation was an ‘important case about compensation’ for poultry producers affected by bird flu (Ben Birchall/PA)

Mark Westmoreland Smith, who represented Mr Barclay, said the heart of the claim was a “question of statutory construction”.

He said the “claimants’ construction” would “change the clear meaning” of statutory provision for “no good reason”.

Producers taking action include: LJ Fairburn & Son of Alford, Lincolnshire; J W Gate & Son of Wigton, Cumbria; Roy Scaman Farms, of Louth, Lincolnshire; and Yorkshire Farmhouse Eggs of Thirsk, North Yorkshire.

Farmers’ union the NFU is backing claimant companies.

A spokesman said in a statement, outside court before the hearing, that the litigation was an “important case about compensation” for poultry producers affected by bird flu.

He indicated that specific decisions had been taken by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which comes under Mr Barclay’s umbrella.

The spokesman said producers were arguing that legislation underpinning a compensation scheme had been “misinterpreted” and affected farmers had not been “properly” compensated.

Mrs Justice Hill indicated that she would deliver a ruling in the near future.