Campaigners against rural school closures have hailed a Court of Session verdict which they believe will ensure the potential damage to communities and children's education can no longer be glossed over.
The ruling, in an appeal to the supreme civil court in Scotland, over three proposed closures of schools in the Western Isles, makes clear that ministers cannot choose to examine only the procedural elements - they must also weigh up how closure will affect the people whose lives are intertwined with the school.
Judges ruled that the government was entitled to call in plans to close Carloway and Shelibost primaries, and S1-2 education at Shawbost, although they also found that Western Isles Council had acted properly in its handling of the proposals.
But the fate of the three schools may not be decided for several months. A further Court of Session hearing will examine the merits of the government's decision to call in the council's proposals - although education secretary Michael Russell wants all parties to work together and find a solution before that.
Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, said the current ruling meant that campaigners had been "vindicated".
"Councils could say anything they liked before," he said. Now, if a case went to the Scottish government, it was obliged to review all aspects of a proposal.
"Previously, there was no mechanism where we could say, `This is complete and utter codswallop,'" said Mr Longmuir, referring to controversial closures where campaigners had argued that the impact on children and communities had been ignored and doubt cast on councils' financial calculations.
The judgement states that ministers are not "mere checkers of procedural aspects leading to a decision; rather they are part of the decision-making process itself"; they are "obliged (and not merely entitled) to have regard to all the circumstances, including both the procedural aspects and the merits".
They must ensure that all essential factors have been weighed up - specifically "arguments for and against closure, representations made, rural factors (if relevant - including viable alternatives, effects on the community and travel arrangements), statistics, costs, educational benefits, community needs, and other such matters".
The three judges found, too, that the government might cause "loss of public confidence" if consultations were dismissed purely on procedural matters.
"In our opinion such an approach would be widely regarded as a waste of time, effort and resources, and would be seen as leaving the council and the local community undermined and facing the unattractive prospect of having to begin all over again," they state.
Leslie Manson, a past president of education directors' body ADES and director of education for Orkney, said: "I rather like the legal opinion that it's not enough for government, having called in a decision and ruled against it, to simply wash its hands and walk away, leaving a state of limbo. I believe that the government should be morally and legally obliged to make a ruling.
"This would then lead inevitably to a fresh case for government to offer financial support to councils whose financial steps they had thwarted in these tough times."
But the judgement also suggests that ministers' obligation to consider the bigger picture could be bad news for campaigners in some cases.
A proposal could be called in on the basis of a procedural mistake - but if ministers then found the educational benefits of closure to be "outstandingly clear", they could "ignore the minor procedural flaw, and give their consent to the proposal".
- Education secretary Michael Russell will not comment in detail until he considers "some complex issues" raised by the court ruling.
- The Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education's final report has been delayed by the legal battle over the proposed Western Isles closures; its publication may still be some weeks away (see TESS, 11 January, for details of draft report).
- The government plans to hold talks with Western Isles Council in the hope of avoiding further Court of Session proceedings.
Photo: Protesters convene at Carloway Primary to discuss plans to close the school. Photo credit: STV
Original headline: Campaigners hail landmark ruling on rural closures