The son of a woman with dementia has won High Court permission to challenge a decision to reduce inspections at care homes in Northern Ireland.
Keith Gray was granted leave to seek a judicial review into claims the Department of Health unlawfully directed a watchdog body to suspend some checks on facilities during the Covid-19 emergency.
With related proceedings against the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) also clearing the first stage, a judge listed the case for a full hearing later this month.
Mr Gray's 73-year-old mother, Briege Gray, is a resident at a private nursing home in Castlewellan, Co Down.
Lawyers for the family yesterday contended the department unlawfully directed the RQIA to put some statutory inspections on hold. They also claim the direction was misinterpreted as providing flexibility to continue inspections remotely. According to their case, Mrs Gray's human rights are being breached.
With regulations requiring at least two inspections a year, barrister Frank O'Donoghue QC said none have been carried out at her home since last October.
Stressing the urgency of the case, he told the court: "Mr Gray's mother has dementia, he has not seen her since March and he knows nothing about what's actually going on in the home.
"The only means of assurance he has is through a competent assessment carried out by the independent regulatory body. That hasn't taken place."
Further concerns centre on personal protective equipment (PPE) usage, despite assurances from a manager at Mrs Gray's home that all staff are wearing face masks and eye shields as part of strict hygiene procedures.
Tony McGleenan QC, for the department, argued that it has the legal right to issue a direction which modifies the inspection arrangements.
He went on to stress that measures have been put in place to ensure care homes remain subject to scrutiny. "It's not correct that there's a vacuum and individuals are without oversight," Mr McGleenan added.
Mr Justice McAlinden acknowledged assurances being given to the public and relatives of those in care homes. But he maintained that a legal point remains to be determined.