Judge adjourns Northern Ireland schools decision legal challenge

A legal challenge to the decision by Northern Ireland’s education minister to not yet close schools has been adjourned until Friday pending political developments.

However, a high court judge said she intends to deal with the case “administratively” to avoid bringing people back into a courtroom in “this very difficult time”.

By Wednesday afternoon, Peter Weir had resisted calls to close the region’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying he would act when the time is right.

There are 68 cases of coronavirus in the region.

The mother of a Co Armagh schoolgirl who suffers from severe asthma is seeking to judicially review Mr Weir’s stance.

Proceedings were also taken against the Health Minister, Education Authority and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

However, in a rapidly-developing situation with schools in Scotland and Wales ordered to close just before the hearing took place, a lawyer acting for the mother said he felt “very reluctant to “waste valuable court time with something which appears imminent”.

Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan responded: “These are obviously unprecedented times … the matter is in the political arena and being debated probably as we speak … this issue may become academic.”

She also expressed concern at the attendance in court, saying: “I am conscious quite a lot of people have come to court today which is an issue obviously of whether they are protecting themselves”.

A lawyer acting for the department of education told the court they had received four letters threatening judicial review “in various aspects of the Covid-19 crisis”.

“This one, one almost identical to this one, one in relation to testing and another case in respect of court closures, so we have currently a significant amount of resources being consumed in responding to pre action correspondence … on matters that are plainly questions of policy.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

He requested the court to signal that this is “not proper territory for use of judicial review”.

“These are matters of high policy, they are highly complex, we are reacting to an evolving situation,” he added.

Mrs Justice Keegan ruled that the case should be stayed until Friday and dismissed if an announcement that schools are to close is made.

She said: “This is a difficult area, obviously this is an issue which has engaged the public interest I understand, but there is an issue here about the role of the courts vs the role of policymakers, politicians who are clearly making decisions on the basis of expert evidence in a very difficult area.

“We have seen today that the issue of school closures is changing. On that basis, it doesn’t seem appropriate to me to continue with this case in the court arena. It is debatable whether the court arena was the right place for a case of this nature in the first instance.

“I say that from the point of view of avoiding further cases that may clog up the system and divert very important resources from decision-making.

“I will stay the case but I don’t intend to have a further court hearing. The case will be dismissed when we hear the news in relation to school closures … I will deal with that administratively, I don’t want to bring all the people back into court.”

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