30/04/2009

High Court Rules Loyalist Funding Cut 'Error'

A decision by NI Executive Minister, Margaret Ritchie, to axe funding for loyalists has been slapped down by the High Court.

As MLAs seek separate legal advice over actions undertaken by the NI Education Minister - on entrance criteria for schools - Mr Justice Morgan has ruled that the Social Development Minister "failed to follow the correct procedures" in relation to business she brought before the Stormont Executive.

Ms Ritchie halted the controversial Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) in October 2007 after the illegal paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) failed to meet her 60-day ultimatum to end criminality and start decommissioning its weapons.

Farset, an independent body appointed to oversee the project first set up under the NIO Direct Rule regime, is seeking a judicial review of her decision.

During the case it was alleged that Ms Ritchie breached Stormont's Ministerial Code by failing to first obtain the approval of colleagues.

Mr Justice Morgan said he was satisfied the issue had come before the Stormont Cabinet, with a determination made on how it should proceed.

But he declared: "The error in this case is procedural in that the Minister did not act in accordance with that process."
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He added: "Accordingly I make an order of certiorari quashing the decision of the Minister to cease the funding of the CTI."

The taxpayer will have to meet costs of more than £300,000 incurred in the High Court case against Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie.

The news comes just as Stormont's Education Committee agreed to consult lawyers on whether or not procedures put forward by the NI Education Minister Caitriona Ruane on entrance criteria for schools are discriminatory.

Ms Ruane's recommendation that over-subscribed schools should consider, as a top priority, if a prospective pupil is eligible for free school meals or not.

Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea called for the probe after claiming the guidance contravened equality legislation, because the number of Catholic children eligible for meals is double that of Protestants.

Ms Ruane has claimed the criterion - one of a series of considerations she has proposed to replace academic selection - will ensure that children from socially deprived backgrounds have an equal chance of going to their preferred schools.

Other factors the Sinn Féin minister wants schools to conciser is to include geographical proximity and whether older brothers and sisters are pupils.

(BMcC/JM)

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