Legal aid cuts 'deprive justice' to school-dispute families

26th November 2010 at 00:00
If proposals are approved, 'most vulnerable in society' will suffer, charities warn

Thousands of families will be left with no way to challenge decisions about special educational needs, school admissions and exclusions if "devastating" cuts to legal aid go ahead, charities have warned.

The alert follows the publication of a Ministry of Justice consultation that aims to slash the legal aid budget as part of reforms to cut the department's overall budget by almost a quarter.

A total of #163;1.7 million was spent in the 200910 financial year on legal aid for education cases. More than 5,300 families received help from solicitors in preparing appeals and cases, and more than 200 were represented in court.

The legal aid fund currently covers a range of educational issues, including admissions, out-of-school provision and reorganisation proposals.

It also pays for advice and advocacy in cases of damages, negligence and breach of contract in failure to education services.

But the Ministry of Justice proposals say those involved in education legal disputes should only get the "basic help" currently offered by voluntary organisations.

If the consultation proposals are implemented, no cases involving schools will get legal aid apart from those involving discrimination.

The previous government was planning to extend the funding - a recommendation made in the Lamb report into the special educational needs (SEN) system published last year.

The consultation document states that education cases "cannot be accorded the same level of importance as the immediate threat to life or safety, liberty or the roof over their heads faced by litigants in other types of cases".

Many cases are brought just because of "personal choice" and by middle-class families, the document says.

To receive legal aid, applicants must earn below #163;32,000 a year and have less than #163;8,796 disposable income.

The Ministry of Justice insists the "class" of parents bringing cases is not "likely to be particularly vulnerable" and that such parents are able to bring their own cases.

But The Advisory Centre for Education and the charity Independent Parental Special Educational Advice, which both have volunteers and staff who provide help for parents, said they were "swamped" with requests and cannot take on more work, as the Government has suggested.

"This is devastating for the most vulnerable in society. It's very short-sighted because those children who continue to be served badly by the SEN system might then require attention from the criminal justice system in the future," said Jane McConnell, chief executive of Independent Parental Special Educational Advice.

"Parents won't be able to get independent assessments of SEN, which the legal aid pays for at the moment, so they won't be able to challenge a local authority for providing insufficient support. This is depriving people of justice."

Amanda Quincey, principal of Treloar's, an independent special school in Hampshire, said: "The potential removal of legal aid for parents wishing to challenge SEN statements is undoubtedly controversial.

"However, it misses the main point. Instead of arguing about the merits of public funding, we would be far better looking at ways to help local authorities to improve the statementing process and reducing the need for legal challenges in the first place."

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