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Councils win right to plead poverty

Josephine Gardiner on a case that has upset the special needs lobby

The Appeal Court has "reluctantly" agreed that councils can plead poverty when dealing with claims for special educational help - a ruling which has dismayed special needs campaigners.

Two out of three judges agreed last week that East Sussex County Council was entitled to cut 15-year-old Beth Tandy's home tuition from five to three hours a week last September. Beth suffers from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).

The Appeal Court decision follows a long-running and high-profile case. It overturns a High Court ruling in April that East Sussex had acted unlawfully in putting budgets before Beth's needs.

The decision mirrors a House of Lords ruling in March, which said Gloucestershire County Council was justified in cutting home help to a disabled man.

Beth Tandy was diagnosed as having ME seven years ago and has not attended school for five years. Lord Justice Ward said that the council had been entitled to take its budget into account and Lord Justice Mummery agreed "reluctantly", adding that he hoped East Sussex would reconsider in view of Beth's approaching GCSE exams.

But the third judge, Lord Staughton, disagreed. He said the council was not excused from providing a suitable education because it had overspent its budget.

Beth's solicitor, William Garnett, will be taking her case to the House of Lords. "We need a ruling on whether local authorities' primary duty is to meet their statutory duties and pay for unglamorous things like special needs, or whether they can arrange their budgets as they like."

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