SEN-appeal parents keep legal aid

1st July 2011 at 01:00
Justice secretary back-tracks on plan to axe cash support

Plans to axe legal aid for parents who challenge decisions about their child's special educational needs support have been abandoned following widespread criticism of the changes.

Ministers have responded to warnings that thousands of families would have been deprived of justice if the reforms had gone ahead.

Justice minister Kenneth Clarke, who hopes to slash the legal aid budget, has now back-tracked and decided SEN cases will still qualify for funding.

As a result, parents will continue to get the cash support to help them to pay for advice to prepare for tribunals, for representation at tribunals and law courts, and to pay for expert advice.

But, as previously trailed, legal aid for all other education cases such as bullying, admissions and exclusion will be axed.

Around 90 per cent of those who responded to a consultation disagreed with the proposals, first announced last November.

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.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials say they were "persuaded by the strength of the arguments" put forward by critics of the changes to SEN funding.

Campaigners had predicted that parents unable to get legal aid for SEN cases would instead bring disability discrimination claims, for which funding would still have been available.

The MoJ proposals said those involved in education legal disputes should only get the "basic help" currently offered by voluntary organisations such as the Advisory Centre for Education. But campaign groups successfully argued that these charities were already stretched, and it is unlikely they would be unable to deal with a larger workload without funding.

Jane McConnell, chief executive of the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA), said the change of decision would protect vulnerable and disadvantaged families.

"For families who work tirelessly to support their children with SEN and who live in poverty, legal aid is crucial," she said. "Without it they could not challenge the wrongful decisions that deny their child's legal entitlement to special education."

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of the charity Ambitious about Autism, said: "For many of the parents we support, using the legal system is the only way to get a good education for their child.

"Families tell us that it is hard enough fighting a legal battle with support - doing it without legal aid would be impossible. They will be hugely relieved by the Government's decision."

Campaigners' case

Change of mind

- Parents would bring disability discrimination claims instead, of SEN appeals because these would still receive legal aid.

- New mediation between parents and schools or local authorities means only the most "difficult and intractable" cases will now be dealt with by tribunal. It would be unfair to deprive those families of the expert help to make their case.

- Without legal aid, parents would be unable to afford their own expert report to challenge the report of the local authority.

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