A damning court ruling against Caitriona Ruane could open the way for schools which were rejected for new buildings to launch legal claims, it has been claimed.
A High Court judge yesterday blasted the Education Minister for an “abuse of power” when she rejected a Tyrone school’s bid for a new building on its existing site.
A new premises was promised for Loreto Grammar in Omagh by a previous Education Minister in 2004. This decision was later reversed by Ms Ruane.
But after the school launched legal action a judge ruled that the conduct, delay and inactivity of the minister and department officials amounted to “an unjustifiable breach of trust”.
And last night the outgoing education chief came in for stinging criticism from political opponents over her department’s handling of the affair.
The court’s decision and criticism of the department could open the door to an avalanche of legal challenges to ministerial decisions after other schools denied funding said they will now take time to consider the legal ruling. A department spokesman said: “The minister is aware of the judgment delivered on this matter. She will be studying it closely with her officials.”
But rival politicians have rounded on the Sinn Fein minister and the department in the wake of the court judgment.
The DUP’s spokesman for education, Mervyn Storey, said: “We now have on public record the judiciary passing this judgment on Caitriona Ruane.
“If there was poor judgment and abuse of power in this issue, how many more issues has there been abuse of power by the minister and the department? That’s how serious this situation is.
“People will now be asking what was the legal basis for a lot of things that have been done?”
Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea added: “We have had significant difficulties with the minister over many years and there is always a suspicion that she dealt with things in a partisan manner and this is supported by the words of the judge.”
The SDLP’s education spokesman Dominic Bradley said the department should have honoured its original decision to fund the new building.
Loreto Grammar was one of eight schools tuned down by the department for new build funding last year.
Last night Lisa Hicks, principal of Artigarvan Primary School, which was also rejected, said school bosses will study all their options in light of the court ruling.
She said: “All the other schools will look at this case and I’m sure they will consider their situation.”
Other schools turned down for funding last year include Devenish College, Eniskillen; Knockbreda High School, Belfast; Little Flower PS, Belfast; Springhill PS, Belfast; St Bronagh’s PS, Rostrevor, and St Patrick’s Grammar, Armagh.
In 2004 direct rule minister Barry Gardiner pledged £15 million to Omagh’s Loreto College to help it build a new school. However, the school never received the cash. In October 2009 the Minister for Education Caitriona Ruane commissioned a review of all capital projects to ensure they were consistent with the department’s policy framework. Omagh’s Loreto Grammar, along with seven other schools, was found to be “non-compliant”, which meant it would not receive the promised cash. This prompted the school to launch its legal challenge.