Delays are mounting up in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal because there are not sufficient judges, MPs have been told.
Written evidence submitted to the Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into SEND from Judge Meleri Tudor states that a request has been made for 30 new judges to join the tribunal.
“The tribunal does not have sufficient judges at present to cover all of the hearings required,” she writes.
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New statistics also show that the number of families who have appealed to the SEND Tribunal has almost doubled in four years, from 3,236 appeals in 2015-16 to 6,374 appeals in 2018-19.
Parents can appeal to the SEND Tribunal if a local authority refuses to assess their child for an education, health and care plan, decides to stop a plan that is in place or if they disagree with the contents of the plan.
EHC plans not only set out what support the child needs but also put a legal duty on the local authority to ensure that support.
Judge Tudor has told the committee that: "Even if there was no further increase in the number of appeals registered by the tribunal and requiring a hearing, this situation will not be fully remedied for at least a year, if not longer.”
She said that while the tribunal continues to meet its targets of dealing with appeals, the number that have had to be postponed has “increased dramatically” since September 2018.
“Those hearings which are 'stood down' are re-listed with a new hearing date as soon as possible,” she writes. “The position has now escalated to a situation where on some days, only appeals which have previously been stood down are being listed. Every attempt is made to ensure that appeals are not being stood down twice for want of a tribunal panel, but it has happened.”
She added that “on a positive note”, 21 new judges from other jurisdictions had undertaken an induction course for the SEND jurisdiction and that it is hoped that they will be able to alleviate shortages.
The committee has heard from parents that they feel councils are gatekeeping by setting criteria for needs assessments that are not required by legislation and that they feel there is a conflict of interest with councils having to both draw up and fund plans.
But local authority representatives who have appeared at the inquiry have argued that there are “too many children in the system” and that parents were being influenced by “aggressive marketing” from some private special schools.
Judge Tudor said in her written evidence that she did not believe the system was more adversarial than under previous legislation and that the tribunals were conducted in such a way as to minimise the formality and conflict.