A ministerial decision to suspend the professional body which regulates teachers in Northern Ireland could be subject to legal challenge, a Stormont committee has been told.
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said that there is a risk that any challenge to her decision to stand down the General Teaching Council of Northern Ireland (GTCNI) could be successful.
In December, Ms McIlveen announced she was suspending the council and its committee with immediate effect and would bring forward legislation to dissolve the non-departmental public body.
Her move came after an independent review of the GTCNI identified systemic failures and a breakdown of working relationships within the organisation.
The GTCNI was set up in 2002, and was responsible for registering teachers in the region and upholding professional standards.
The minister is also seeking to introduce legislation under accelerated passage at Stormont which would allow her to direct the council in the discharge of its duties, before a public consultation and more substantive legislation to formally dissolve the council is introduced in the next Assembly mandate.
Ms McIlveen appeared before a Stormont scrutiny committee on Tuesday to explain the proposed legislation.
She said the independent report she had received identified “extensive governance and leadership failings, deep seated divisions and animosities” among GTCNI members.
But she added that the powers she used to stand down the council had not been tested in court.
I am unwilling to take any risk that DE could once again find itself powerless to intervene in the operation of an ineffective, factionalised and frankly toxic organisationMichelle McIlveen
Ms McIlveen said: “The use of this duty in this way has not occurred before. Its application has not been tested before in court and there is no case law or prior court judgments to give us insight into how a court might rule in such a case.
“As our counsel pointed out, there is therefore a risk to the department that former members of GTCNI could potentially challenge my decisions.
“Should such a challenge prove successful, the same council would be reinstated pending the passage of legislation to formally dissolve the organisation.
“They are worried under the department’s current powers there would be no means for the DE (Department of Education) to prevent the council from pursuing the same damaging and divisive agenda which has brought it to this damning assessment of its performance.”
She added: “I wish to be very clear, counsel strongly believes the department would have a very robust defence for its actions.
“Nonetheless, there is always a risk in any judicial review process that a judge may not find in the department’s favour.”
The minister continued: “I am unwilling to take any risk that DE could once again find itself powerless to intervene in the operation of an ineffective, factionalised and frankly toxic organisation.
“I am not willing to allow further damage to the already tarnished reputation of the council, nor take a risk that by its actions it might undermine public confidence in our teaching workforce more generally.”
The minister’s draft bill to allow her to issue directions to the GTCNI will be introduced at the Assembly next week.