Supreme Court rejects challenge to school’s admission policy

Traveller claimed rule giving preference to children of past pupils was discriminatory

The Supreme Court has unanimously dismissed an appeal by a boy from the Traveller community who challenged the refusal of his admission to the Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary in 2009. Kitty Holland reports.

 

The Supreme Court has unanimously dismissed an appeal by a boy from the Traveller community who challenged the refusal of his admission to the Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary in 2009.

The decision by the five-judge court effectively upholds earlier rulings by the Circuit and High courts in relation to the case taken by Mary Stokes, the mother of John Stokes, who is now 16 and attending another school in Fethard, 14 km away.

Ms Stokes had argued school policy which gave preference to the children of past pupils discriminated indirectly against children from the Traveller community.

After John was refused a place his mother lodged a complaint under the Equal Status Act over a policy of the school to give priority to those whose fathers were past pupils.

John’s father, a Traveller, was not a past pupil of the school. Ms Stokes argued that because most Travellers of her son’s father’s generation had not attended secondary school at all, such ‘old boys’ or ‘parent rule’ policies discriminated against Travellers.

His appeal was upheld by the Equality Tribunal but appealed to the Circuit Court by the school. The school won there and Ms Stokes appealed to the High Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision. She appealed this to the Supreme Court.

In their judgements today the court dismissed the appeal, though for different reasons.

Two of the five said that under Section 28 of the Equal Status Act there could be no appeal beyond the High Court and so the case did not “lie” in their court.

Three accepted that an appeal could be heard but argued insufficient statistical evidence or information had been put before the lower courts to properly analyse whether the admission policy discriminated against Travellers.

They too dismissed the appeal.

Ms Stokes was not in court today.

However Brigid Qulligan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, thanked her for taking the case and spoke on her behalf.

She said Travellers were “very dismayed” by the judgement and said “discrimination [WAS]very alive and well”.

She said Ms Stokes had stood up “against all odds, all barriers and against the system which currently does not provide a level playing field for all children, particularly marginalised and disadvantaged children”.

Ms Stokes had taken the case, not only for her son but for other children.

“She took this landmark case on behalf of her son knowing that in the lifetime of this case it might not directly affect his life but that it might affect, hopefully positively, the lives other children around the country.

“Traveller children and also other children, migrant children and children from working class backgrounds who also do not have a history of secondary education within their families.”

Asked what she would say to schools which vigorously campaigned to be allowed retain the ‘parent rule’, she said: “You are excluding students and for whatever reason, are trying to hold onto a past in Ireland that is unfair. Why is it only in particular schools that this applies to?”

“Discrimination is very alive and will in Ireland. It is particularly evident in the amount of calls from parents contacting Irish Traveller Movement on a weekly basis to say their children are not receiving an adequate education. We see children of my sons’ age, 15, going to school and not attaining, not succeeding because there are no supports in place.”

She referred to the judgement of three of the court’s judges that there was insufficient statistical evidence to support the claim that Travellers were disadvantaged by the parent rule.

The lack of this type of evidence was due to the fact the data was not available, she said.

This was due to cuts by the Department of Education in 2010 which meant data on Traveller participation in schools was no longer gathered.

A spokesman for the school said it was “happy” its admission policy had been upheld by the court.