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(UK) Councils spend $325M fighting parents over SPED "to delay paying higher support bills"

Dec 18, 2022, inews: ‘I spent £20k [$24K] fighting the council to get my disabled son in school and I’m not alone’
Councils fight doomed legal battles against parents of disabled children to delay paying higher support bills, lawyers say

Albie Gill is eight. He has a severe speech and language disorder, as well as ADHD and dyspraxia. …

As if these problems weren’t difficult enough for the family to deal with, accessing the right school for Albie has led to a lengthy financial and legal nightmare which left the boy trapped.

Until this autumn, Albie was in a mainstream school with a base for autistic pupils, even though he isn’t autistic. He couldn’t converse, wasn’t learning a great deal and teachers couldn’t understand him.

Mark and his wife, Shelley, 42, raised concerns with their local council, Sutton in south London, that their son was in an unsuitable school.

That was the beginning of a two-year negotiation that cost the family £20,000 in legal and professional fees.

Mark, the managing director of a veterinary practice, believes Sutton’s behaviour during the negotiations was “disgraceful”. It feels unfair they had to spend so much money on lawyers, he argues, only for the council to concede that Albie did need a specialist placement after all.

The family have since moved to Surrey and Albie started at his new special school in September. “You can see the difference in a term: his speech has improved significantly, he’s proud of what he’s doing. He’s an outgoing, friendly, caring boy. He likes to have friends and likes to make people happy – but wasn’t able to do that before. Now he’s got a group of friends he tells us about. He’s enjoying learning and is finally happy to be in school.”

Councils are obliged by law to assess a child for potential special educational needs and to pay for any support they require. Parents who don’t agree with the support they are offered – if any – can go to the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Sendist) tribunal, where a judge will listen to both sides and come to a decision.

There were 11,052 appeals before the tribunal in the 12 months up to September, 29 per cent more than the previous year – though many cases, like the Gill family’s, are conceded before even going to court – so do not form part of these figures.
Experts say councils are increasingly fighting cases they know are doomed in order to delay funding the extra support. Their not playing by the rules forces families to rack up legal costs in the tens of thousands of pounds – and councils do not have to backdate any costs of support when they lose a case.

“This is made worse because it currently takes a year before a tribunal will hear an appeal”, says Ed Duff, an education solicitor at the law firm HCB. “In the meantime, that is a child missing out on education”.

New research shows that local authorities spent £73m in a single year defending legal appeals about support for children with special educational needs, only to lose 96.4 per cent of cases.

Based on calculations published on the Special Needs Jungle website and from data from the Government and Warwick University, spanning the 12 months to April, councils have spent more than £325m [$390M] in the past eight years defending cases that parents take to tribunal.

The impact of these legal cases on the families is huge, says Mark. …

The charity Ambitious about Autism says it has worked with parents who have had to sell their homes and move into rented accommodation to fund legal costs, while others have cashed in their pensions. It has called on the Department for Education to adequately fund support for children with Send.

“The system is broken,” says Jolanta Lasota, its chief executive. “The Government knows this and so do thousands of families who are at crisis point across the country”.

Hayley Harding founded Let Us Learn Too, a campaign group, after her experiences trying to get appropriate support for her autistic son Matthew, 8….

Local authorities have complained they are not receiving enough funding from central government to meet their legal obligations towards children with Send.

The Department for Education says the majority of cases are concluded without the need for tribunal hearings. They add that the Government had increased high-needs funding to £10.1bn [$12.14B] in 2022-23, offering direct support and intervention to councils where needed.

But a spokesperson admits: “We know the system needs to improve and that is why we will publish an improvement plan early in the new year when we respond to the Send and Alternative Provision green paper.”


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