A High Court judgment that barred a local authority from slashing £5 million from its budget for "high needs" pupils is expected to trigger legal challenges across the country.
Two families have won their case to stop Bristol City Council from cutting its 2018-19 high needs budget – aimed at children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
In a judicial review hearing, the families' lawyer argued that the funding cuts would affect vulnerable children, and that the council had not carried out a proper consultation.
The council had argued that no formal decision on what services would be cut had been taken and that the duty to consult would come into force later.
But Judge Barry Cotter QC, who heard the case, said: “It was a decision to cut the extent of services to a defined group who were, on the defendant’s own analysis, struggling with the extent of current provision.”
The judge ruled that the council had not carried out its duty to consult on the proposals, and quashed the council's funding decision.
This means that Bristol now has to reconsider the amount it has set aside for high needs.
Bristol's deputy mayor, Craig Cheney, said he was “disappointed” with the decision and would carefully consider what to do next.
He said: “We truly appreciate how sensitive this issue is, and know it is difficult to contemplate changing budgets without causing concern.
"We want to stand united with local families and schools in highlighting the national funding shortage for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and work together with them on a way forward."
High needs budgets are under severe pressure across the country – partly due to changes brought in as part of the national funding formula for schools.
There are already legal challenges pending against planned cuts in Hackney and Surrey.
Tania Tirraoro, special needs campaigner and editor of the Special Needs Jungle website, said that the Bristol judgment could embolden concerned parents in other areas.
“We know there are a lot of parents in different areas considering whether to go down this route,” Ms Tirraoro said. “This judgment will no doubt give them encouragement to do so."
She added: “There are already cuts happening. We are seeing cuts to teaching assistants – that means children have less support – schools can’t cope and the pupils end up on a quick path to exclusion. It really is a false economy.”
Samantha Hale, a partner at Simpson Millar, the legal firm which represented the claimants in the Bristol case, said the council will now need to properly reconsider the funding decision, and consult with families who would be affected by any cuts.
There was "no guarantee" that this will lead to an increased budget being agreed, she said. But, she added: "We hope that the local authority will take into consideration the criticism made of the SEND provision, and that this will lead to improvements to this and the outcomes for children and young people with SEND."
She added: “Other local authorities are reporting that they will have to make cuts to their SEND budgets and therefore we hope that they will take into consideration this decision before determining any cuts."