Northern Ireland is close to a dystopian state of governance, the High Court heard.
Counsel for survivors of historical institutional abuse also claimed the Secretary of State is attempting to "stymie" their challenge to an ongoing failure to provide compensation.
With no Stormont Executive in place since January 2017 to implement the redress scheme recommended by a major inquiry, Barry Macdonald QC claimed Karen Bradley is breaching a legal obligation to call fresh elections.
In an announcement to the House of Commons on Thursday, Mrs Bradley ruled out a new Assembly poll and said she is to bring forward legislation enabling civil servants to make decisions in the absence of devolution.
However, Mr Macdonald argued that she is required to set a date for elections - irrespective of her views on whether it would help the political impasse.
"It's as clear as a pikestaff, in legislation that is a duty, not a discretion," he said.
"The Secretary of State has been breaking the law for 20 months, but she is now going to ask Parliament to change the law so she doesn't have to set a date."
The barrister also referred to the current situation where the courts have ruled civil servants lack power to take controversial decisions without a minister in post.
Since then, he contended: "Executive government in Northern Ireland has moved from being merely dysfunctional to being completely non-functional, bordering on the dystopian."
His comments came amid an application to adjourn the abuse survivors' challenge due to be heard next week.
Tony McGleenan QC, representing the Secretary of State, claimed her announcement in Parliament addressed central issues in the case.
"The legal landscape is likely to change fundamentally," he said.
Following submissions Mr Justice McCloskey said he will decide on Monday whether the hearing should proceed as planned.
The case has been brought on behalf of those abused in children's homes.
In 2017 the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry concluded there should be a public apology to those who suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse between 1922 to 1995, and compensation ranging from £7,500 to £100,000.
Inquiry chairman Sir Anthony Hart has since made repeated pleas to politicians to act on his recommendations and provide the financial, social and educational support as a matter of urgency.
Earlier this year the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland revealed work was underway on draft legislation aimed at implementing the inquiry's proposals.
But legal action is being taken in a bid to compel the Secretary of State and Executive Office to take immediate steps and ensure compensation is fully provided.
Lawyers representing one of the victims granted anonymity contend that despite Stormont's collapse there can be "no vacuum in government".
They also claim there is a legal obligation to propose an early date for Assembly elections.
The Secretary of State maintains, however, that the redress issue is a matter for the devolved administration.