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Coronavirus: Parents of children with health issues will not be prosecuted over absenteeism, court told

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Belfast High Court

Belfast High Court

Belfast High Court

The mother of a seven-year-old pupil with underlying health problems will not be prosecuted for keeping her out of classes due to coronavirus, the High Court has heard.

The reassurance was given as legal action was launched over the decision not to close schools across Northern Ireland.

Education Minister Peter Weir has insisted the shutdown will happen when the time is right, with the move to be based on expert clinical advice on the outbreak.

But the mother of a Co Armagh girl who has severe asthma is now seeking to judicially review his stance.

Proceedings have also been taken against the Minister of Health, the Education Authority (EA) and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

Lawyers for the parent claim the current position is unlawful and contrary to the necessary protections afforded to all citizens under the Human Rights Act.

During an emergency hearing a judge was told the mother fears she will be compelled to send her daughter to school, despite the health risks.

Parents can be prosecuted if their child's attendance rate falls below 85%.

However, barrister Philip McAteer, for the Ministers being challenged, indicated the EA has now confirmed that concerns in this case were unfounded.

"There would be no question of that child or parent being considered to be in breach, therefore there's no need for the child to attend school," he said.

A lawyer for the Authority added that the girl's circumstances meant she would not be prosecuted for non-attendance due to "unavoidable cause".

Mrs Justice Keegan said the confirmation should provide reassurance to families amid fast-moving developments.

She stressed: "The people who are making decisions in this area are in receipt of expert evidence, and it's on that basis they make the decisions.

"There will be an argument about where this issue lies; it's clearly in the political arena and politicians are acting very quickly in relation to it."

Ronan Lavery QC, for the girl's mother, insisted issues of public confidence and transparency were at stake.

Emphasising the case is focused on health and safety, counsel said: "We understand the Education Authority is withdrawing outreach support staff in relation to schools.

"If it's not safe for them to be working there on the ground, it may not be safe for other people including children."

With a further challenge potentially being lodged by the parent of a second pupil, the judge adjourned the case until Wednesday.

She said: "It remains to be seen how events transpire on the ground."

Outside court solicitor Darragh Mackin, who represents the child's mother, welcomed confirmation that no action will be taken if she is kept out of school.

"This is a major step in the right direction in combating the risks posed by the coronavirus," he said.

Mr Mackin insisted, however, that the current arrangements still do not address the ongoing concerns, and called for an immediate assessment to be carried out.

"It is not without note that the EA has today removed their support staff from schools across the jurisdiction," he added.

"If schools are not safe for their employees, then they cannot be deemed safe for pupils."

Belfast Telegraph