Pro bono matters

Strangford success – pro bono collaboration with IEF

Date of publication: April 5, 2021

A popular integrated college in Co. Down will now be able to welcome over 700 pupils through its doors every year, thanks to the support of pro bono legal professionals and strategic NGO advocates.

Strangford Integrated College successfully questioned a decision by Minister for Education Peter Weir MLA not to allow its admission numbers to increase. Assisted by the Integrated Education FundNICIE, and legal expertise sourced through the PILS Project’s Pro Bono Register, the school outlined its concerns to the Department of Education.

The Minister not only pledged to reconsider his original decision, but ultimately reversed the initial refusal and allowed the increase in enrolment figures that the school requested.

The collaborative process between PILS, IEF and the school lasted less than three months, but its impact will live on in the local community for years to come.

The background

PILS first learned about the difficulties faced by Strangford Integrated College in February this year when we were approached by one of our long-standing NGO members, The Integrated Education Fund.

When a school in Northern Ireland wants to make a major change to how it operates, it needs to submit these plans as a Development Proposal. Given the fact that Strangford’s pupil numbers had been increasing consistently, with year-on-year growth since 2016, the board of governors were hopeful that their proposal would be successful. When it wasn’t, that’s where the PILS Project got involved.

The collaboration

In February 2021, IEF got in touch with the PILS staff team on behalf of Strangford Integrated College. Under our Project’s membership model, PILS can provide our members with a number of services to support public interest litigation.

PILS connected IEF with our network of legal professionals. Together, we pooled our knowledge and resources:

  • A local barrister provided a detailed legal opinion within a very tight timeframe; they shared this assistance with IEF for free as part of PILS’ Pro Bono Register service.
  • In mid-March, PILS organised an online consultation, allowing the school’s board of governors and IEF to ask questions about the legal opinion and discuss their options with the barrister.
  • The school then issued a pre-action protocol letter to the Department of Education. Also, drafted pro bono by the barrister, this letter outlined the school’s request for a reconsideration of its Development Proposal.

The result

PILS were delighted to learn that, on 26 April 2021, the Minister for Education reversed his original decision.

Strangford College’s enrolment figures will increase, allowing 760 pupils to attend the school every year.

This is a very efficient example of what using legal tools in the wider public interest – at the pre-litigation stage – can look like in practice. From start to finish, the entire process took less than three months.