A Magherafelt solicitor hoping to challenge restrictions on outdoor youth sport has claimed the NI Executive has breached international law.
Stephen Atherton has said the Executive failed to consult with the office of the NI Children's Commisioner prior to introducing the most recent round of restrictions on children's sport.
Under the terms of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), governments must ensure all legislation is fully compatible with the Convention.
Mr Atherton said the Children's Commissioner's office has confirmed to him they have not been consulted on the latest Covid-19 restrictions.
“I reached out to the Children's Commissioner's office on Monday to ask for advice, assistance, support and guidance in this action,” he told Derry Now.
“I was contacted by their senior legal advisor who I asked to confirm whether the NIE had consulted with the Children's Commissioner before the latest restrictions on children's sport were imposed.
“Under the UNCRC, there is an obligation in international law that executive bodies must consult children's agencies on the effects decisions will have on children.
“He confirmed to me yesterday afternoon that the Executive had failed to consult with the Children's Commissioner in relation to the impact restrictions on sport would have on them.
“He also confirmed there was no consultation in October and I am still waiting on information about whether it happened in March.
“The Executive has acted unlawfully under international law in regard to the latest set of restrictions.”
Mr Atherton had also asked the Children's Commissioner to back the legal challenge to the restrictions by making a statement asking the Executive to overturn their decision.
A senior legal advisor from the Children's Commissioner's office, however, told him this would not be possible.
“They said that was not going to be possible, and the senior legal advisor refused to give me a reason for that,” said Stephen.
“This has ramifications and people need to wake up. This isn't just about the next two weeks, my concern is what's going to happen when there is an inevitable spike after Christmas.
“If the Executive are not challenged now, there will be further restrictions imposed in January and the position will change to children's sport not returning until after there is a vaccine.
“If that happens, the children will not have played competitive sport here for over a year.”
NI Children's Commissionaer, Koulla Yiasouma.
In a statement provided to Derry Now, the Commissioner said restrictions were 'regrettable', but that children should be getting physical activity in schools.
“We can confirm there was no direct consultation with NICCY on this particular matter during the few days the Executive had to make decisions on restrictions coming into force tomorrow,” she said.
“No one wants the restrictions coming into force tomorrow, however they have been deemed necessary to drive down infection rates and crucially deaths.
“My priority is keeping schools open where children should be getting physical and sport activity and, within reason, I broadly accept the restrictions that are deemed necessary to allow that to happen.
“The specific restrictions on children playing outdoor sports are regrettable as physical exercise is vital for our children’s mental health and wellbeing, however these restrictions stop contact and movement of adults and young people and therefore reduce the likelihood of transmission.
“I believe these short term restrictions will ensure that children can enjoy their rights to sports, leisure, arts, culture and play to a fuller extent in the longer term.
“This position was not arrived at lightly but these are extraordinary times and these difficult choices have to be made.
“We are continuing to monitor this and other areas of children’s lives affected by the Pandemic and Government’s response to it.
“Should the restrictions continue longer than is deemed necessary in any area then we will of course review the position.”
Mr Atherton, who has been representing children for 17 years, has been the victim of online abuse since announcing the challenge on Monday.
He has said he feels so passionately about this case he is prepared to fund the challenge himself.
“This makes me very emotional. It's not the virus that is harming children, it is society's response to the virus that is harming them,” he said.
“I have suffered abuse online from Monday with individuals saying this is a solicitor trying to make money. I've never before been the subject of online abuse and it's distressing for me and my family.
“I've been working 18-19 hours a day since the weekend to try and get this case forward and I have not received a penny.
“Moving forward, if I do not get funding to take this case to court, I will personally pay for this action myself.
“I will expose myself and my family to the risk of the High Court ordering costs against me personally in the event my challenge fails.”
Mr Atherton, acting on behalf of an 8-year-old footballer from Magherafelt, has said he will lodge proceedings to begin a Judicial Review if the Executive do not overturn their decision to place restrictions on youth sport.
The director of John J McNally & Sons Solicitors has asked parents of children whose mental or physical health has suffered as a result of the restrictions to get in touch.
“Every letter sent to me will form part of the pleadings and exhibits in any High Court case. The judge will be compelled to read them and it will give these children a voice,” he added.
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