The High Court has declared that the Welsh Government’s last-minute decision to stop free school meals in the school holidays last year was made unlawfully, following a legal challenge brought by two families represented by Public Law Project.

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The case concluded without a court hearing this week as Welsh Ministers admitted that they failed to take into account the rights of the children affected or consider the impact the decision would have on different groups of people such as disabled people, ethnic minorities and single mothers. 

Matthew Court, PLP solicitor who represented the families that brought the challenge said he hopes this decision means that Welsh Ministers will take their legal obligations towards children and disadvantaged people in Wales more seriously when making decisions which affect them. 

Mark (not his real name), one of the parents represented by PLP, said:  

“I’m glad the Welsh Government has acknowledged that they acted unlawfully. Being unable to work, I am incredibly grateful for the benefits I receive, but prices go up and up and the money just hasn’t been enough for my family. Cuts like the one they made to free school meals over the school holidays affect the poor so much more, especially when they give you almost zero notice – people in my situation just don’t have access to ready money to cover things. 

“I hope the Government has learned a lesson. If they’re making changes like this, they need to think them through before-hand and give people enough notice to adjust. 

“I fully respect that public bodies need to find money to pay doctors and nurses, but stopping the holiday free school meal payments altogether doesn’t have to be the way. I really hope the Welsh Government can come back to this afresh and look hard to see if there is any way of supporting families like mine who were badly affected by the decision.” 

Matthew Court, Solicitor at the Public Law Project said:  

“My clients and many others in their situation were badly affected by the decision to stop free school meals over the holidays, and by how poorly it was communicated. They felt the way the way the decision was made was unfair and unlawful. The Welsh Ministers have now conceded that they acted unlawfully, and the court has also declared it so. 

“We hope that the outcome of this challenge encourages all public authorities in Wales to focus more on preventing harm, especially to people who face an uphill struggle to provide for their families in difficult circumstances.” 

The High Court declared, by consent, that the Welsh Ministers acted in breach of the Rights of the Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 and the Equality Act 2010.  

This is the first time the court has declared the Welsh Ministers to be in breach of their duties under the 2011 Measure.  

Rights of the Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 

  • The Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011, places a duty on Ministers to have due regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (an international agreement setting out the rights of children) when developing or reviewing legislation and policy. 
  • When Ministers decided not to extend free school meals over the 2023 school summer holidays and beyond, they should have had due regard to the impact of the decision on the rights of children; the Welsh Ministers have admitted that they failed to do so.  

Equality Act 2010 

  • Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 requires the public bodies, including Welsh Ministers, to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity between people who have protected characteristics and those who do not. Disability, race, and sex are protected characteristics. 
  • Before making this decision, Welsh Ministers should have considered the impact that they would have on people with protected characteristics, including disabled people, ethnic minorities and single mothers. The Welsh Ministers have admitted that they failed to do so.  

The Welsh Ministers made a further decision in October about whether or not to reinstate the support. Despite acknowledging the negative impact the decision would have on children and people with protected characteristics, they decided not to reinstate the support due to a lack of money.  

The families in the case were represented by Matthew Court of the Public Law Project, David Gardner of No5 Chambers, and Gwion Lewis KC of Landmark chambers. 

Dr Rhian Croke, Chapter Arts Centre, and Pontypridd Foodbank provided evidence for the case. 

Read the whole story in BBC Wales or listen on Radio Wales Drive.