Belfast Telegraph

£15m school plan was never a binding promise, court rules

A school never received a binding promise that it would get nearly £15m to build a new premises, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Senior judges ruled that Loreto Grammar in Omagh had no legitimate expectation that a publicly financed new school would be constructed on its existing site.

But the court also quashed a decision by the Department of Education to categorise a capital project submitted by Loreto as 'non-compliant' with its sustainable schools policy.

Officials were ordered to reconsider the economic appraisal assessment in light of the findings.

The judgment represents a partial victory for the department in its challenge to a High Court verdict that an unjustifiable breach of trust occurred.

In March last year a judge had ruled that the conduct of former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane (below) and officials in the case was an abuse of power.

The case centred on £14.6m of investment Loreto Grammar School believed was promised in 2004 for a new build through a public private partnership (PPP).

It was announced by then direct rule minister Barry Gardiner as part of an expansion plan for schools across Northern Ireland.

Since then proposals have been advanced for a shared education campus on the site of the old Lisanelly military barracks.

In summer 2010 Loreto was included in eight schools rejected for new building plans for non-compliance with policy.

The High Court had found that the conduct, delay and inactivity of the then minister and department officials frustrated the legitimate expectation that a new Loreto Grammar, financed by public funding, would be built on the existing site by 2010 at the latest.

That outcome was contested in the Court of Appeal in front of a three-member judicial panel.

Delivering the decision yesterday, Lord Justice Girvan stated that the course of documentation and events in the case did not point to a conclusion that the school had been led to believe it had an assured outcome in relation to funding.

He said: "Neither the school nor the department - by their statements or actions - evidenced any belief or understanding that there was a binding, enforceable promise to fund a new school building on the existing site." The judge said the decision had been reached with regret.

School principal Grainne O'Hanlon insisted it had been vindicated in taking legal action.

She added: "We look forward to re-engaging with the department as equal partners."

A school statement said: "The fact that the Appeal judges found that the school fell short of substantive legitimate expectation is not unexpected, it is of note that the judges expressed their regret in reaching the decision. Vindication comes in the fact that the costs of the school were awarded entirely against the department."

Education Minister John O'Dowd welcomed the court's decision. He said: "I am keen to move forward constructively with schools in the Omagh area in the best interests of the young people of the area."

Background

In 2004 direct rule minister Barry Gardiner pledged £15m to Omagh's Loreto College to help it build a new school. However, the school never received the funds. Loreto Grammar, along with seven other schools, was found to be 'non-compliant', which meant it would not receive the money. This prompted the school to launch its legal challenge. The school says it looks forward to talking to the Department of Education about a new building which it says is desperately needed.

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