A senior civil servant was legally entitled to approve the closure of a Co Armagh school campus, a High Court judge ruled today.
Lawyers for a prospective pupil at Craigavon Senior High School’s Lurgan site claimed the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education should not have taken the step without a Minister in position.
But Mr Justice Scoffield held that Dr Mark Browne acted lawfully under legislation which gave officials more decision-making powers following the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont.
He said: “I see no basis for quashing the Permanent Secretary’s view that it was in the public interest for the relevant departmental function to be exercised.”
In December last year Dr Browne approved an Education Authority (EA) proposal to shut Craigavon Senior High School’s Lurgan campus.
Around 160 of the 650 pupils are currently taught at that site, while the remainder attend a separate campus in Portadown.
Inspections at the Lurgan campus have identified a number of health and safety issues.
By 2020 the school’s budget deficit had also exceeded £2m, with financial projections suggesting further annual increases of up to £500,000.
The closure decision was taken following consultation into four proposed options for the school for 14-16 year-old students.
Dr Browne concluded that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 enabled him to approve the development proposal in the absence of a Minister.
Amid opposition expressed in the consultation process, judicial review proceedings were brought on behalf of a 14-year–old pupil who planned to transfer to the Lurgan campus in September.
The court was told that the closure would deprive a generation of pupils in the area of access to key stage four provision in their own community.
Lawyers for the pupil insisted the decision was flawed, lacking in political accountability and should never have been taken by an unelected official.
They claimed the Permanent Secretary had acted irrationally and was not empowered by the 2022 Act.
Counsel for the Department maintained that the approval was in line with a long-established Sustainable Schools Policy.
Highlighting concerns over accommodation and curricular provision at the school, he argued that it faced enduring financial difficulties.
Mr Justice Scoffield backed submissions that the 2022 Act represented the clear will of Parliament for officials to be able to make decisions during the current political stalemate in Northern Ireland.
“Senior civil servants have been placed in an unenviable position,” he said.
According to the judge, Dr Browne properly determined it was in the public interest to exercise the departmental function of determining the question of approval.
A bad situation was becoming worse and it was a perfectly legitimate view that it was in the public interest that the nettle be grasped,” he stated.
Rejecting the legal challenge, Mr Justice Scoffield confirmed: The 2022 Act was enacted in the terms in which it has been to permit senior officials to make decisions just such as this.
The Permanent Secretary considered all of the relevant issues and was aware of the strong local opposition to the proposal from parents and others in Lurgan.
“However, the decision reached was rational, both as to the level of inquiry undertaken and the outcome.”
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