A Belfast grammar school has allegedly discriminated against children from disadvantaged backgrounds by its admissions criteria, the High Court heard today.
Lawyers for a boy seeking to attend St Malachy's College claimed greater priority should have been given to pupils entitled to free school meals.
An emergency legal challenge has been brought against its board of governors over criteria published for the September 2021 intake.
With transfer tests cancelled due to the pandemic, schools have drawn up alternative methods of selection.
But it was claimed that St Malachy's has unlawfully failed to adhere to guidance issued by the Department of Education.
Children with a sibling who previously attended the school are wrongly being given priority over those eligible for free school meals, it was contended.
Mr Justice Colton was told the criteria is allegedly irrational, in breach of a statutory duty and a violation of human rights.
Hugh Southey QC, for the boy at the centre of the case, claimed the Department's guidance had been misunderstood.
He also argued that the free school meals criteria was important for helping to remedy educational disadvantages suffered by children from poorer backgrounds.
"The reason why free school meals is such an important criteria is that quite clearly there is a recognition historically that children from disadvantaged economic backgrounds have been disadvantaged in the education system.
"The underlying objective of this guidance is quite clear, it is to a significant degree intended to reduce the discrimination suffered by those who are economically disadvantaged," he said. "That criteria needs to be applied with care, and it hasn't been."
Paul McLaughlin QC, representing the board of governors, told the court the legislative framework was "deliberately looser" than for pre-school admissions.
"It is one in which any recognition of free school meals is not mandatory," he said.
"There is no legal requirement upon any post-primary school to prioritise to any degree free school meals-eligible pupils as part of their admissions criteria."
According to Mr McLaughlin there is "flexibility" for boards of governors to formulate criteria in a way which fits the priorities and ethos of individual schools.
"They are fully entitled to do that within the constraints of regular public law powers," he said. Judgment was reserved.