A group of parents are suing some of England's larger county councils, claiming they denied disabled children the right to a fair education.
The parents say they were forced to keep their children at home for months at a time because Essex, Hertfordshire, Worcestershire and Suffolk councils failed in their European Convention of Human Rights obligations. Their case was rejected in the High Court in May but the Court of Appeal in London agreed last week to hear the Essex case, with appeals in the other three expected to follow.
One of the four children involved is severely autistic and epileptic and wore arm splints and a helmet to prevent him harming himself. When the school was no longer able to cope, his parents looked after him at home. Essex county council sent them educational touch books and coloured plastic bubbles to help comply with its legal obligation to offer him an education. The boy was 12.
After more than a year at home, the council found him a pound;223,500 a year place in a special school. But his parents, like the other three families, are demanding compensation for the time he spent out of school and a declaration from the Court of Appeal that the council should have provided better help for their son. The council failed to respond to requests for comment.
In Suffolk, a boy who has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette's syndrome, suffering tics, was so violent and disruptive that he drove his primary teachers to tears. At the age of six he talked of suicide.
His mother said she was forced to take him out of primary school for two months and then out of secondary school for 10 months because the staff could not cope. When told that he would have to attend a mainstream school with children who had bullied him, the 11-year-old was so petrified that he chose a tree from which he said he would hang himself.
Eventually, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal ordered Suffolk county council to send him to a pound;45,000-a-year boarding school, which was able to address his needs. His mother said she was fighting for a principle. "It's not going to change things for him, but there are other kids in similar situations who could have a chance of an education if we win," she said.
She added that she would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
Mark Blois, an education expert at law firm Browne Jacobson, said a Court of Appeal judgment for the families would be very significant. "There's a lot at stake," he said. "If a breach of the letter of the special needs statement is transformed into a breach of human rights, local authorities will be forced to be more cautious."
At the High Court, Mr Justice Field had found in favour of the four councils, saying the children had nothing now to gain from declarations against the councils aside from "disproportionate" damages claims.
Julia Thomas, solicitor for the Children's Legal Centre, which is representing the parents, said: "What was put in place for these children was not suitable education. Putting a box of toys in front of a child is not an education.
"One has to be realistic; there's not a bottomless pot of money in any local authority. But there is a lack of compassion in so many cases."
A Suffolk council spokesman said the Court of Appeal decision is awaited with interest.