First grant funds successful appeal to Tribunal for independent school placement
Rook Irwin Sweeney LLP are delighted to report that one of the first grants made under its “Education, Health and Care Social Justice Fund” has led to a Tribunal ruling in favour of parents who challenged their local authority’s refusal to fund a placement for their daughter at a special school.
The grant was able to fund advice and assistance to secure the funding for a specialist independent school placement for L, a young girl autism, through an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability).
The firm’s EHC Social Justice Fund exists to fund education, health and/or social care legal advice for disabled individuals or families who need assistance to get the support that they require that they are otherwise unable to access. Often, this will include acting for disabled children or adults and/or their families challenging decisions by local authorities or health authorities in relation to their education and support needs.
Applications are welcome from anyone although the firm will prioritise support and advice for anyone who is unable to access other sources of funds, including legal aid.
L’s parents approached solicitors just a week before the hearing date. They had so far been representing themselves with the support of their local SENDIAS representative. Their daughter, L, has extremely high levels of anxiety and had been out of school for the entire academic year. They believed that L needed a placement at an independent school which specialised in autism and supporting children with associated emotional and mental health needs.
The local authority rejected this placement on grounds of cost. Instead it proposed a placement at a new provision that had not yet opened; support staff were still being recruited, building works were not completed and pupils may have had to use a temporary building.
The EHC Social Justice Fund stepped in and L’s parents were able to instruct solicitor Polly Sweeney. Polly was able to provide urgent and comprehensive advice and assistance in relation to the legal test the Tribunal would be applying to this decision and the evidence that it would need. Polly then worked with the family to try and gather urgent additional evidence. The firm also instructed a barrister, Alice Irving, to act for the family at the Tribunal hearing, which was heard over two days to allow evidence on a second placement proposed by the local authority.
Responding to the Tribunal judgment which ordered the parents preferred School to be named in the EHC Plan, L’s parents said:
“Thanks to you both so very very much. This is going to change L’s life. Your advocating & support truly made the world of difference.”
Polly Sweeney, Partner at Rook Irwin Sweeney, and specialist education law solicitor said:
“For most families, including those on very low incomes or receiving welfare benefits, the inequitable rules for legal aid in special educational needs cases means that they face legal proceedings without advice and representation.
Whilst it is correct that the Tribunal works hard to ensure that it can be accessible as possible for unrepresented parents, the fact remains that the law relating to special educational needs is complex – particularly around the rules for parental preference of school placements. Without good quality advice and assistance, there is all too often an inequality of arms. Cases which are meritorious, risk being unsuccessful because the correct evidence has not been gathered or the right questions of witnesses not asked. Ultimately, putting to one side concepts of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, it means the best evidence is not before the Tribunal and this can never be in the best interests of the child or young person.
Cases like this are why the fund exist and I look forward to being able to help more individuals and families in similar circumstances. We are hugely grateful to the fund’s donors; without whose support this would not be possible.”
Further information about the Education, Health and Care Social Justice Fund can be found here:
17 June 2020
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