From April this year, under-18s will no longer receive legal aid for judicial reviews in most cases involving education. Instead, parents above a certain income level will be expected to pay.
Up till now children pursuing legal cases against schools qualified for aid regardless of family wealth. Now families will only receive it if parents have joint incomes below approximately pound;20,000 a year, and less than pound;100,000 equity in a house or flat.
Cases involving exclusions, special educational needs and school closures will be affected. Pupils will still be able to take out cases, but regional legal services commissions will then consider whether parents should help with costs.
Gerry German, director of the the Communities Empowerment Network which has supported pupils in exclusion cases, said: "This is a step back to the dark ages when the law was only available to those who could afford it."
Michael Charles, education lawyer for Sinclairs Solicitors, Cardiff, said:
"Say a child with a speech defect is not getting the support he needs at school. If his parents earn pound;25,000 they will probably not feel they can afford a court case, and the speech difficulties will worsen."
However, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "This is a well-overdue ruling. For far too long taxpayers'
money has been wasted by people pursuing cases in the courts that should never have been allowed to see the light of day, and which have added substantially to the costs of running schools."
The planned guidance changes will not alter actions over bullying, race discrimination or educational negligence, where the child will remain the claimant.