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Principals facing minefield of potential legal issues: expert

Northern Ireland’s schools should be better equipped to defend themselves against future legal challenges, a leading education lawyer has warned.

Seamus McGranaghan, an education law specialist with Belfast solicitors O'Reilly Stewart, said that a high proportion of schools, including voluntary grammar schools, would need to be prepared to deal with potential legal actions around post primary school admissions given the level of uncertainty.

The abolition of the 11-plus as a means of selecting pupils for grammar school has led to most grammars setting their own exams for pupils to sit.

There have been reports of schools paying thousands of pounds to take out insurance to cover themselves against litigation by parents whose children can't get into the school of their choice.

However, Mr McGranaghan said he thought it unlikely there would be a huge number of legal cases as a result of the exam. He said: “Whilst there is a potential for a lot of litigation around post primary admission it's important to emphasise that most of these are likely to be resolved through the admissions appeals process and not in the courts.”

He said because of the level of uncertainty it was too early to say how extensive resort to the law would be.

He delivered his advice at a conference organised by Legal Island and Association of School and College Leaders, which brought together lawyers and education professionals for the first time in Northern Ireland. It was held against the backdrop of public concern about litigation relating to post primary schools admissions, and similar events are planned over the coming six months.

Mr McGranaghan said: “Schools are vulnerable as they have to cope with a minefield of potential legal issues.

“Our message to schools is that such issues need to be adequately addressed early on in the process by seeking proper legal representation in order to reduce the scope for long-running problems and decisions being challenged in court.”

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