Local authorities in England and Wales taken to tribunal 3,274 times in 2018-19, figures show
Tue 31 Dec 2019 01.00 EST
The number of parents and carers taking councils to tribunal for refusing support to children with disabilities has almost tripled in the past five years.
Since 2014, legal battles over decisions – which include not assessing children’s particular needs or providing them adequate help at home or school – have increased by 176%.
The figures from 2014-15 and 2018-19, which the Guardian acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests, are from 71 local authorities in England and Wales.
Educational support is offered to all children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) at schools and colleges. However, councils can create education, health and care plans (EHCPs) for those with more complex needs. EHCPs are legal documents that describe a child or young person’s needs and set out the extra help that will be provided by the local authority to meet them.
Dedicated teaching assistants, access to speech therapists and placements at schools that have the provisions to look after children with Send – such as smaller class sizes and specialist facilities – are among the resources that can be written into a plan.
Sarah White, head of policy at Sense, a charity for people with complex disabilities, criticised the knock-on effects that inadequate educational support could have on children with Send further down the line.
“If children aren’t getting the support that they need, they’re potentially not able to attend school. Or, if they’re attending school, they might not be getting the level of support they need so that can have an impact on educational progress and potentially their ability to make friends and engage and take part in activities,” said White.
In 2018-2019, local authorities were taken to tribunal 3,274 times, in comparison with 1,186 times over 2014-15.
Birmingham city council, the largest local authority in Europe by population, was taken to Send tribunals 985 times between 2014 and 2019, which was more than any other local authority. Cases against the council increased by 273% over the period.
A spokesperson for the council said: “While the vast majority of appeals are resolved without the need for a hearing, we recognise that there are long-standing issues, particularly with regard to communication with families and waiting times for assessments, which we are working to address.”
Kent county council, which participated in 859 tribunal hearings, and Essex county council, which was taken to tribunal 829 times – a 219% increase in five years – also had among the largest number of proceedings. A spokesperson from Essex council said the increase corresponded with rising numbers of children with Send.
Although many appeals against council decisions are resolved before the hearing date, the process can be lengthy and expensive for parents.
Of the hundreds of parents and guardians who responded to a Guardian callout on Send tribunals, many said they had spent tens of thousands of pounds on legal representation to bolster their chances of winning, despite the fact it is not common practice to have a lawyer at hearings.
A mother from Derby said her family had spent over £200,000 taking the city council to three tribunals andthe high court to ensure suitable educational provision for her autistic daughter.
Others described the significant mental strain that had been placed on both them and their children while they waited to receive support.
A father from the Isle of Wight said his 13-year-old son had tried to end his life on a number of occasions after years of being bullied and feeling isolated at a mainstream school without assistance.
Earlier this year, three families brought action against the government at the high court, claiming its budget decisions had left councils unable to fulfil their obligation to provide an education to children with Send. But they lost after Mr Justice Lewis ruled there had been “no unlawful discrimination”.
Data from the Department for Education showed the number of children and young people with Send statements or EHC plans has increased by 34,200 (11%) since 2018.
However, an analysis by the National Education Union published in April found that special needs provision in England had lost out on £1.2bn because of shortfalls in funding increases from the government since 2015.
Reforms introduced in 2014 to improve the experiences of Send pupils were criticised by a cross-party committee of MPs earlier this year for being poorly implemented.