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Autistic boy wins High Court battle

The parents of a four-year-old autistic boy won a dramatic High Court battle on Tuesday when a judge ruled that their local education authority must pay Pounds 56,000 a year to keep their son at a special school in America.

Noel and Julie Finn had managed to raise funds for two terms' fees for their son, James, at Higashi School in Boston. But the money was running out and Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council argued that it was not obliged to pay. Mr Justice Dyson disagreed, pointing out that Solihull had previously admitted that the Higashi School was the most suitable place for James. The council was appealing against an earlier ruling by the special needs tribunal. The Finn family were represented by Cherie Booth, QC.

Because of the shortage of specialist places for autistic children in Britain, councils are regularly asked to fund children at the Higashi School, which achieves remarkable results through behavioural "daily life therapy", though its rigorously physical approach has been criticised by some psychologists.

Judge Dyson's decision about James Finn is, however, unlikely to open the floodgates for parents seeking LEA funding for the Higashi School. On the same day, the judge ruled against two other parents of autistic children - Julie Richardson, from Solihull, and Angela White from Ealing - arguing that that the councils were entitled to decide that Higashi was not suitable for these children.

The Court of Appeal is about to deliver its verdict in a second important case where a county council is attempting to ration special educational help.

East Sussex wants to overturn a previous, highly significant, ruling that barred it from considering budget problems when deciding what level of support children are entitled to. The council had attempted to cut the amount of home tuition for 15-year-old Beth Tandy, arguing that a Pounds 3 million shortfall in its education budget made the action necessary.

Beth, who suffers from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) and is unable to attend school, had her tuition reduced from five to three hours a week in September last year. In April East Sussex was told by the High Court that this was unlawful.

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