Parents of children with special education needs in ‘harrowing situations’

High Court to hear challenges over failure to reopen schools for pupils with extra needs

The applicants seek an order compelling the Minister  and the State to provide the children with an adequate and appropriate education. Image: iStock

The applicants seek an order compelling the Minister and the State to provide the children with an adequate and appropriate education. Image: iStock

 

Several legal challenges brought over the Government’s decision not to reopen schools for pupils with special education needs are expected to get an urgent High Court hearing.

Last week five judicial review actions were initiated against the Minister for Education, Ireland and the Attorney General over the failure to reopen schools for those children during the Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions.

The applicants seek various orders compelling the Minister and the State to reopen the schools to those with intellectual disabilities.

When the cases were mentioned before Mr Justice Charles Meenan at the High Court on Monday, Derek Shortall SC, for the applicants, said it had been agreed in order to save time that the actions could proceed by way of telescoped hearing.

That means the applications for permission to bring the challenges, and the challenge itself will be heard at the same time and by the same High Court judge.

Mr Shortall said the matter is extremely urgent from his clients’ perspective and it was hoped, in order to expedite it, that the court will hear two lead cases, rather than all five actions. The two test cases have yet to be identified, the court heard. Counsel said that his clients are anxious that the matter be heard as soon as possible. Catherine Donnelly SC, for the respondents, said her side needed time to reply and it would be premature to fix a hearing date.

Premature

Mr Justice Meenan agreed that it would be premature to fix a hearing date for the hearing. However, the matter is urgent, he said, directing the State side to file its reply within a week.

Adjourning the cases for a week, he said hopefully a hearing date can be fixed then.

The actions have been brought on behalf of five schoolgoing children, all with special needs, who cannot be identified for legal reasons.

The case arises after the Minister said on January 19th the schools would not reopen due to a lack of co-operation from key staff trade unions. The applicants seek an order compelling the Minister and the State to provide the children with an adequate and appropriate education, on the basis the respondents have obligations under the 1988 Education Act and Article 42 of the Constitution.

They seek a declaration the respondents have failed in their duty to provide for an adequate education for the children under the 1998 Act and Article 42.

They also seek injunctions aimed at compelling the State to provide the children with appropriate and adequate education.

Appropriate

The applicants say prior to the January 19th announcement, the respondents believed it was appropriate the schools should have reopened as planned on January 21st last.

The parents fear for their children’s mental and physical wellbeing and say that the schools should be reopened by the Government.

It is also claimed the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and the Government deem schools safe to reopen.

It is claimed the respondents have failed in their duties towards the children, who have various conditions including autism spectrum disorder.

The court heard that some of the children involved have severely regressed in basic skills due to the school closures and the lack of supports they would normally get as part of their education.

Their counsel said the situations the parents of these children find themselves in are “harrowing”.