Thirty-eight slaughterhouse operators have scored a victory against the Food Standards Agency over £1m-worth of meat inspection charges, after a judge today ruled the charges were unlawful.

The operators – whose claim was being co-ordinated by the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) – argued the FSA was looking to overcharge them by about £1m for EU ‘minima’ payments – the minimum rate per animal that EU member states should collect to pay for meat inspection charges at abattoirs. They challenged the legality of bills sent out by the FSA for 2011/12, and were today granted victory by Mr Justice Singh.

Now FSA’s invoices for the period have been declared unlawful, operators will not have to pay them and the FSA will have to return payments already made. The operators were also awarded their costs.

The case was brought against the FSA after the regulator changed the way it charged slaughterhouses in 2009.

A previous case between AIMS and the FSA related to meat inspection charges was last year settled out of court, but AIMS said a settlement was not an option this time around as the FSA had refused to go further than a 50:50 settlement, which AIMS believed did not reflect the strength of its case. “This decision has been vindicated in view of the clarity of the judge’s decision,” it said in a statement.

Policy director Norman Bagley added: “AIMS has come in for considerable criticism for not settling this case on a 50:50 basis, but it is the role of a trade association to look after the interests of its members, and that is what we did. We will continue to do all we can to limit meat inspection charges until controls are delivered efficiently when we would accept full cost recovery.”

Jamie Foster, a partner at Clarke Willmott – the law firm representing AIMS – said he was delighted with the result. “As the sole providers of legal services to AIMS we are working hard to ensure that the Meat Industry is properly represented and has its legal interests protected.”

Stephen Rossides of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said the dispute showed that “clear, transparent, fair and agreed rules and procedures” for meat charges for were needed. “We must get away from legal confrontations between the FSA and industry, and move on to more positive partnership working and cooperation on more strategic issues, including modernisation of meat inspection and delivery, facilitating exports to lucrative markets, improving industry standards, reducing unnecessary TSE controls and better regulation generally.”

The FSA now has until 12 July to seek permission to appeal. A spokesman for the agency said today’s ruling helped clarify the relevant regulations, “and the FSA welcomes that clarification”.

He added: “We will consider the detail of the judgement and be making our proposed course of action clear as soon as practicable.”