Cut-off point in childrens’ sport legal challenge is stretched again

The cut-off point by which the Northern Ireland Executive was to respond to a legal challenge against the prohibition of children’s outdoor sports has been stretched again.

Stephen Atherton, the Glaswegian lawyer - now based in Magherafelt - who is taking the case on behalf of an unnamed eight-year-old boy
Stephen Atherton, the Glaswegian lawyer - now based in Magherafelt - who is taking the case on behalf of an unnamed eight-year-old boy

Spearheaded by solicitor Stephen Atherton on behalf of a client, pre-action notice served on the Executive initially had a deadline of 5pm on November 23, and while this passed, confirmation was received of an intention to have a response by Tuesday, December 1.

However, just under two hours before the deadline, the Executive indicated a need for more time. The first delay prompted Mr. Atherton to describe it as: “A cynical attempt to frustrate due process.”

Faced with further delay, he said: “I have replied advising we were ready to lodge proceedings at the High Court last week, but held off because of an indication of a response.

“There has been plenty of time to provide a response, which should have been a straightforward exercise, as they must know the basis upon which this restriction was imposed.”

He previously confirmed instructions had been received to challenge the Executive on the prohibition of children’s outdoor sport.

Support rapidly flowed, and the latest to speak out is eminent physician and epidemiologist, Professor Gabriel Scally, who challenged the value of the continued restrictions on grassroots outdoor sports for children.

He indicated no valid reason exists as to why sporting outdoor pursuits in a controlled environment should continue to be prohibited.

Mr. Atherton said: “In March of this year, the lives of our children were turned upside down. The cruel and bitter irony is, however, that it is not the Covid-19 virus that is harming our children, it is society’s response to the pandemic that is damaging the physical and mental health of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community.

“The Executive’s failure to respond meaningfully thus far has inhibited my ability to lodge proceedings in the High Court, as it will not countenance making an order against the Executive in the absence of any substantive response from them, particularly in circumstances where they have indicated a date of reply.”

Having been notified the second deadline would also not be met, Mr. Atherton said: “This so-called response from the Executive’s solicitors, received at the 11th hour, is an affront to every child in the country who plays sport and who will once again suffer this weekend.

“It represents a blatantly cynical and, quite frankly, disgraceful manipulation of the legal process, at the expense of our children.”

He concluded: “This conduct will not deter me from seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.”