Northern Ireland pandemic-related rules discriminated against disabled schoolchildren

Northern Ireland pandemic-related rules discriminated against disabled schoolchildren

Rachel Hogan

Northern Ireland’s restrictions on school transport during the pandemic breached the human rights of disabled children, the High Court has ruled.

The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) brought judicial review proceedings on behalf of two disabled children after a referral for specialist legal services by the charity Angel Eyes as part of its joint EqualEyes project with CLC, which protects the equality rights of children with visual impairment.

The CLC legal team argued that prolonged and disproportionate Covid restrictions on school transport for reasons related to disability were unjustifiable and unlawful, interfering with the right to education.

One child was unable to attend specialist education placements in person for all but one day of nursery and for the entirety of the P1 and P2 academic years.

After protracted negotiations to seek and develop alternative educational and transport arrangements for the children, the CLC legal team secured landmark declarations where the EA acknowledged that the children’s human rights to education had been breached during the relevant time periods and they were treated differently to other children because of their disabilities.

The EA accepted that the children in both cases had been deprived of their right to education under Article 2 of Protocol 1, along with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Rachel Hogan of the Children’s Law Centre said: “This is a significant legal milestone for these children, and for all disabled children who have been denied access to services which enable equality of opportunity.

“The High Court declarations reinforce the importance of ensuring that public authorities do not place unlawful systemic barriers in the way of disabled people, including disabled children. Failure to ensure accessibility of services throughout society is capable of breaching the human rights of groups of children who are protected by law.

“When we look at the experience of disabled children throughout Covid, including failures to identify mitigations before implementing restrictions, and also their much slower and ongoing return to normal life compared to others, we get a real understanding of the multiple barriers they face. In our legal casework, CLC sees a system-wide failure of equality for disabled children and their families that reaches far beyond the education sphere and into every element of daily life.

“The remedial actions taken and acknowledgements given to these children by the EA are therefore welcome as it is entirely right that public authorities should openly identify barriers to equality in order to enable these to be removed.

“We hope these landmark declarations serve as a significant reminder to public authorities and duty bearers more generally that disabled children and young people are entitled to equal treatment and equality of opportunity in all aspects of life.”

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