'Free' appeal costs parents pound;15k

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Mother of autistic boy heckles minister over tribunal costs. Adi Bloom reports

Jane Willey has sacrificed pound;15,000, a job, a husband and countless hours to ensure that her autistic son goes to the right school. So she was more than a little put out when Andrew Adonis, the schools minister, told the parliamentary education select committee that there was no charge for parents wanting to appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal (Sendist) over their children's schooling.

Giving evidence before the committee last Wednesday, he said: "There's no cost for going to Sendist. Legal assistance can be provided for those from lower-income backgrounds. That's a very powerful set of rights."

At this point, Mrs Willey heckled Lord Adonis from the public gallery, shouting "pound;10,000" repeatedly, until she was threatened with eviction by the committee chair.

She later told The TES: "Every parent I know has spent at least pound;10,000 on the tribunal. My photocopying alone cost pound;100.

"This chap presides over the system, but he's so locked away in his ivory tower that he has no idea what's happening to sharp-end users. He's not listening. He doesn't see."

Mrs Willey's six-year-old son, James, has dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders, as well as motor difficulties. He has been out of school since July last year, as Hertfordshire county council struggles to find an appropriate special-school place for him.

James was offered a place at a local speech-and-language unit this year.

"The school is full," Mrs Willey said. "They over-subscribed it to offer him a place. But his speech and language are within the normal range.

"So we ended up at tribunal and the local authority brought in a barrister against us. They have all the legal machinery at their disposal and they know it."

Appealing a case to the tribunal is free to parents. But costs are incurred in arguing the case effectively. Official figures show that when only local authorities engage a barrister at the tribunal, there is a 98 per cent likelihood that parents will lose their case. By contrast, if parents have legal representation, there is a 94 per cent chance that judgement will fall in their favour.

Mrs Willey's legal battle has already lasted 20 months, and administrative and legal fees have been mounting up.

"We've spent pound;15,000, and there's still another year of battling to go," she said. "I'm fortunate: I'm middle-class. But I've still had to make sacrifices."

To devote time to the struggle, Mrs Willey gave up her job as a freelance project manager. To support the family, her husband has been forced to take a high-paid job in Ireland, leaving her effectively a single parent, she says. She has saved some money by enlisting the services of Julie Maynard, a pro bono special-needs campaigner and mother of a statemented child.

Ms Maynard said: "You can't just go to court and say, I don't agree with my local authority. Parents spend thousands of pounds commissioning their own evidence and getting legal support. So I'm really cross that Andrew Adonis continues to mislead the public and to disadvantage parents from lower socio-economic groups."

A Hertfordshire county council spokeswoman said: "Mr and Mrs Willey turned down the place at the specialist speech and language unit which we felt would meet their son's needs. Since then, we have have been trying to identify a suitable school for September."

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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