Human rights hearing on school-place row could open complaints floodgates

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
Severely autistic child's case may inspire more parents to fight their corner in court, charity says

A landmark court case will see a surge in families using the Human Rights Act to complain about their child's education, campaigners have predicted.

More parents could challenge local authorities that leave pupils without a school place for months and even years, following a legal hearing at the Supreme Court.

Previously, judges had only considered cases where there was a "systemic failure" in an education system. The case of child A versus Essex County Council - in which the child's lawyers argued that the local authority had failed to provide sufficient education for over a year - means that more rulings about a pupil's individual rights could come before the highest court in the land.

Child A is severely autistic, suffers from epilepsy and has "grave" learning difficulties. In 2002, when he was 12, teachers at his special school voiced concern about his behaviour and the school's ability to deal with him and asked his parents to remove him for health and safety reasons.

He would self-harm, suffered regular epileptic fits despite medication, was doubly incontinent, had no concept of danger, and needed constant supervision.

Now 21, child A was left without a place in a school for 18 months. During this time his behaviour deteriorated. He was eventually placed in a residential school costing #163;233,000 a year, and improved.

Although the judges dismissed the case, the National Autistic Society (NAS) says the fact that the court was prepared to hear the case will inspire more parents to go to the Supreme Court.

More than 3,000 children with statements now are still awaiting a school place.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, said: "This case is significant in that it strengthens an individual right to education for all children with disabilities.

"However, we are disappointed for A and his family, that the case was dismissed after they have fought for so long. The experience of A sadly remains all too common, but we hope legal precedents such as this will help us make a significant step forward in securing an effective education for every child with autism."

Andrew Cooper, the director of the Public Sector Group at law firm Weightmans LLP, and who represented Essex County Council, said local authorities were watching the outcome of the case closely.

"If A's argument had been accepted, it would have created the potential for a flood of nominal damages claims against local authorities, all of which would inevitably have been pursued entirely at significant public expense," he said.

Richard Rose, director of the Centre for Special Needs Education and Research at Northampton University, said cuts in council services see a rise in such cases.

"The principal that local authorities provide support to those with extra difficulties will be put under pressure by a lack of finances," he said.

"I also don't think local authorities are as powerful as people think. They can't find school places that don't exist. We need to avoid a culture of blame."

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