Councils fear trend for truants to sue

Local authorities now risk expensive legal claims from pupils with attendance problems for not taking action against their parents. Michael Shaw reports.

PUPILS who played truant are threatening to sue local education authorities for failing to put pressure on their parents to send them to school.

At least four authorities have received such threats, The TES can reveal, and more are expected.

Education officers in Wirral were contacted by solicitors representing a pair of teenagers who are still in school. They were demanding to know why their parents had not been prosecuted for allowing them to truant.

The LEA was able to avert a legal battle. It showed that together with Wirral social services, it had taken sufficient steps to help the pupils. The departments demonstrated that prosecuting the parents would not have been reasonable.

However, Jill Bennett, head of Wirral's education and social welfare service, said she feared that other claims could come.

Buckinghamshire has received a letter within the past year from solicitors representing a 40-year-old man. Because it happened so long ago, the authority was unable to find paperwork on his school attendance.

Assistant education officer Christine Lofthouse said: "They were looking to take action because he had not been forced to go to school. We have not had any contact from his solicitors since, but in this litigious climate it has made us realise that we have to be careful."

The cases were highlighted at a recent Law Society course for education officers and lawyers on the legal issues surrounding attendance. Education law expert Roger Butterfield warned that councils must pursue parents who fail to make their pupils attend school, or risk hefty damages in educational negligence cases.

Mr Butterfield, principal legal officer for Kirklees council, said that former pupils were threatening similar cases against two authorities in London, and others were expected.

He explained that pupils could sue up to three years after the moment they realised that educational negligence had occurred - not simply three years after the event.

"This is an increasing danger for authorities," he said. "You can get a 25 year-old saying 'I run a stall in a market - if I'd been made to go to school I could have been a lawyer'.

"The statutory time limit is three years after you became aware of the negligence, so the 40 year-old in Bucks could say that he has only recently recognised the problem."

Parents of truanting children have become the target for tougher sanctions this year. In May, Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos became the first parent to receive a custodial sentence for failing to ensure her children attended school.

Parents may also receive "intermittent" weekend prison sentences in the future, following the recent criminal justice White Paper.

Peter Godber, a solicitor and the Law Society's local government group's director of training, said that prosecution of parents was not always the answer. "Councils do not have a duty to prosecute in all cases." he said, "But if no action is taken they risk the courts saying that the council was negligent."

The group said it was difficult to estimate how much authorities might have to pay. The highest pay-out so far in an educational negligence case was made last year, when the House of Lords ruled that the London borough of Hillingdon should pay former pupil Pamela Phelps pound;44,000 for damaging her employment prospects by failing to identify that she was dyslexic.

LEAs have been more successful when accused of being negligent for failing to prevent bullying in schools because they have been able to show firm anti-bullying policies were in place. A case against Durham education authority and Shotton Hall comprehensive was rejected for this reason earlier this month by Teeside County Court.

Mr Butterfield said it was crucial that authorities learned from these cases and ensured that they had stringent systems in place to ensure they carried out all their legal duties regarding school attendance. He warned schools to keep accurate records, citing a recent case where the prosecution of a truant's parents was scuppered by a headteacher.

A magistrates' court in the South-west heard that a head had changed a child's unauthorised absences to authorised ones to improve the school's truancy figures.

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