Legal challenge on child's outdoor play gains renewed momentum: Solicitor Stephen Atherton

Stephen Atherton is seeking a judicial review into the Executive's handling of outdoor sports for children
Stephen Atherton is seeking a judicial review into the Executive's handling of outdoor sports for children

THE solicitor who has launched a legal challenge against the Stormont Executive’s continued ban on children playing outdoor sport insists he will take the case “as far as possible” - and is greatly encouraged by the news that young and disabled people in Tier Four areas of England are allowed to continue playing in the interests of physical and mental well-being.

Stephen Atherton of Magherafelt-based firm John J McNally Solicitors is seeking a judicial review of the Executive’s decision to close down outdoor sports activity because of the ongoing threat of Covid19.

The father-of-five solicitor insists there is “no justification” to stop children and young people playing outdoor sport in a controlled and safe environment and says there is “a clear inconsistency” between the medical advice in Tier Four areas of England and here.

“That gives me great confidence that I am right,” said Atherton. “To see that exemption in England, why can’t it be here?

“How can the Executive justify taking a different approach? Any further restrictions against that backdrop is irrational, unreasonable and ultimately unlawful. So I draw great comfort from that.

“If you live in Co Antrim and you can only play in Co Antrim, so be it. Kids could live with that.”

Mr Atherton will find out early in the new year if his demand for a judicial review has been successful. He has sought support for his case from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Irish FA, but to no avail.

However, responding in a statement to The Irish News earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasoumna said she would “continue to monitor the situation” in regards to the “short-term restrictions” placed on outdoor sport for children and young people.

It is estimated children have lost around seven months of outdoor sports activity due to restrictions laid down by Stormont since the pandemic first emerged in March.

“If you’re taking away someone’s right to work, which they’re doing to small businesses, they’re being compensated. You can’t give a child back part of their childhood,” Mr Atherton said.

“The overarching message at this point in time is for people to stay at home, and they could say that message is proportionate to the risk of this new strain and having children involved in outdoor sport would be inconsistent with that stay-at-home message. But the Tier Four restrictions that were imposed in England last week, the overarching message has been to stay home – in the south east of London – but outdoor sport for U18s and disabled people in Tier Four is allowed, even with that overarching message.”

All outdoor sports have been sorely affected by Covid19 with virtually all governing bodies deferring to government advice.

However, with more high-profile sports figures arguing for a controlled return of outdoor sport for young people, given the impact on mental and physical health, Mr Atherton feels there are “compelling” reasons to review the broad brush-stroke approach associated with lockdown laws.

The Executive responded to Mr Atherton’s pre-action correspondence to lift the ban and he is now challenging its validity through the judiciary.

“There are no checks and balances on the Executive's power... but the courts can intervene which is why I’ve asked them to step in. This is irrational, unreasonable, it’s a violation of the rights of children.”

The Executive, in conjunction with their medical advisers, cite PE in schools as the chief reason why they’re maintaining their stance on outdoor sport for children.

Mr Atherton countered: “Outdoor sport provides a temporary escape route to children from the Covid nightmare that permeates their homes and their schools. When they are on the grass they are physically and mentally liberated and you can’t place a value on that.”

Criticised in some social media circles for using the British Government's as a good example, the Glasgow-born solicitor clarified his reasoning: "My simple response to that is at least there is evidence in England that politicians are actively considering the welfare of children. No such evidence exists in this jurisdiction."