A parent diagnosed with cancer used her life insurance to challenge a council over its refusal to provide the support her vulnerable child was entitled to, while another spent £10,000 pursuing 14 tribunals.
Parents can appeal against council refusals to assess a child’s needs or issue an education, health and care plans (EHCP).
Data published in December shows 96 per cent of the 4,825 SEND tribunals were won by the appellant – almost always parents – last year. This is up from 86 per cent in 2014.
Only 3.6 per cent of the decisions by councils were upheld last year – the lowest on record.
Government claims tribunals should not need “expensive legal representation”.
But Ruth, from Suffolk, won two tribunals for her autistic son, in 2015 and 2020.
Rather than pay off the mortgage, she used £40,000 of a £100,000 life insurance claim after being diagnosed with breast cancer to fund a barrister and expert reports. She won both tribunals.
“We are still very angry about it, if they had met their legal duties in relation to our son we wouldn’t have been forced to do that. [His] mental health and self-esteem had been shredded.”
£10k spent on SEND tribunals
Steven Wright has spent about £10,000 on at least 14 tribunals against Suffolk County Council for his two children.
Without it “my children just simply would not have education,” he said, adding without “credible evidence” such as costly independent reports “you won’t be able to make your case”.
Parents are entitled to means tested legal help, a form of legal aid from the government, but only for preparatory work. An “exceptional case” fund can offer representation in court, but the requirements are narrow.
In 2020-21, government funded legal help for 1,653 “education matters” linked to SEND tribunals.
A survey by Let Us Learn Too and the Disabled Children’s Partnership found a third of parents said they could not afford expert help. Nearly half spent between £1,000 and £5,000. Six per cent forked out more than £10,000.
In St Albans in Hertfordshire, Jenna has been successful in two tribunal hearings for her young son since 2016. She was eligible for about £5,000 government legal funding.
But she said: “Parents can face an arsenal of a full legal team at hearings. What a waste of resources and money for everyone.”
Poorest families more likely to lack support
Hugh Greenway, chief executive at the Elliot Foundation Academies Trust, said the poorest families are “more likely to be left unsupported and also less likely to seek a tribunal”.
While councils have seen swingeing funding cuts, they are finding millions to fight parents.
Data from 40 of 153 councils who responded to a freedom of information request show at least £6.4 million was spent on defending EHCP claims since 2014. Experts say the true costs could run into the hundreds of millions.
East Riding council spent an average of £6,682 for each of its 27 tribunals since 2018.
The Local Government Association said “finite resources” means councils are having to make “difficult decisions” which is “symptomatic of a system under extreme stress”.
Suffolk Council said they will “always work with families and schools to find another solution”.
Hertfordshire County Council said they have taken on “considerable work” with a 47 per cent rise in pupils with EHCPs since 2019.