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Ruane abused power in frustrating hopes of £15m project, says judge

By Alan Erwin

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane and her department's conduct in frustrating a Co Tyrone school's expectation that it would receive nearly £15m to build a new school amounted to an abuse of power, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice McCloskey held that an unjustifiable breach of trust had occurred in the case involving Loreto Grammar's bid to construct new premises on its existing site in Omagh.

He said: “In my view, the unfairness to the governors and those whom they represent is profound and palpable.”

His assessment was delivered as Loreto Grammar won its judicial review over the reneging by Ms Ruane and her officials on a commitment for funding.

The case centred on £14.6m of investment the school believed it was promised in 2004 through a public private partnership for a new build.

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

Since that time, however, proposals have been advanced for a shared education campus on the site of the old Lisanelly military barracks.

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

Lawyers for the department argued in court that no final decision has been taken on the proposed construction.

But Mr Justice McCloskey concluded yesterday that the conduct, delay and inactivity of the minister and department officials frustrated the legitimate expectation of the governors that a new Loreto Grammar School, financed by public funding, would be built on the existing site by 2010 at the latest.

He said: “To borrow from the language consistently employed in the relevant decided cases, the conduct of the minister and the department gives rise to conspicuous unfairness, amounting to an abuse of power.”

Mr Justice McCloskey further found that no proper consideration was given to the governors' expectations when the relevant ministerial decisions were made.

References made to the expectations engendered by Mr Gardiner's statement in April 2004 “were at most brief and fleeting and fail to establish that anything other than the most perfunctory consideration might have been given to the legitimate expectation of the governors and those whom they represent”.

The judge continued: “I consider that the careful, thoughtful and conscientious consideration which was required of the minister and departmental officials concerned was manifestly absent and has not been demonstrated.”

He also indicated his intention to quash a decision that Loreto's proposed building project was non-compliant with the Sustainable Schools Policy criteria.

“Accordingly, the governors' challenge succeeds on both counts,” he confirmed.

A further hearing to decide costs and how to finalise the terms of his ruling will take place next month.

Outside the court, Grainne O'Hanlon, principal of Loreto Grammar, said the school's trustees and board of governors were relieved that the case was over. She added: “They look forward to the future with renewed vigour in working with the Department of Education to provide modern, attractive facilities.”

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