Families of children with special needs are having to fight for services they are entitled to because councils are creating barriers, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has warned.
His damning report into the way education, health and care plans are produced says children with SEND are being let down by a system that is meant to support them.
The ombudsman said that almost nine in 10 of his detailed investigations into complaints about the process from families were being upheld which he described as “exceptional and unprecedented”.
Investigation: How the EHC plan system is failing
And he warned that in some cases councils are trying to make it harder for people to access services in an attempt to save money.
Ombudsman Michael King said: "One particularly concerning development over the last two years has been examples we've seen of councils putting up additional barriers to services in efforts to ration scarce resources.
"While sympathetic to the severe financial constraints which councils tell us they are working under, we can never accept this as an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children.
"Always on the receiving end of these problems are children missing out on the support to which they are entitled, and families left to pick up the pieces.
The report said that complaints about the EHC plan process rose by 45 per cent between 2016-17 and 2018-19, and that 80 per cent more detailed investigations were carried out by the ombudsman.
Last year alone, almost nine in 10 investigations (87 per cent) were upheld, the report said, compared with an "average upheld rate" of 57 per cent for other types of investigation.
Serious problems include severe delays of up to 90 weeks, and regularly of more than a year, in issuing plans; poor communication and preparation for meetings and a lack of working together – for example, EHC plans issued without advice from health or social care services.
The report also highlights evidence of cases "drifting needlessly" and "attempts to farm out responsibilities to parents".
Mr King added: “I hope this report helps to throw more of a spotlight on the problems with the SEND system, and places more urgency on the need to improve, before we hear more heartbreaking stories of children failing to meet their potential."
The report follows a Tes investigation into SEND area inspections carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. This revealed that inspectors have significant weaknesses in two-thirds of the areas of the country inspected this year.
Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said: "This report supports our long-term concerns that councils are in danger of being unable to meet their statutory duties for children with special educational needs.
"While we are pleased the government has announced an additional £700 million for children with special educational needs, without certainty over funding for the future, the situation will get worse as the number of children who need support continues to increase."
Currently there are 354,000 pupils with EHC plans – an 11 per cent rise since last year, she said.
It has also said that an £700 million will be invested in 2020-21 in supporting pupils with the most complex needs.