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Wednesday, 03 October 2018

Families in High Court challenge against council over 'unlawful' special needs budget cut

Written by Sian Harrison

Families of children with special educational needs are fighting a High Court battle against local authority cuts of more £21 million.

Five children, whose mothers are bringing the case on their behalf, are challenging Surrey County Council's decision to reduce its Schools and Special Educational Needs (SSEN) budget.

They said the council made the decision without consulting families and are asking two High Court judges to find the budget cut was "unlawful".

Sarah Jones, 40, is bringing the case on behalf of her four-year-old son Kyffin Carpenter, who has a neuro-muscular disorder and communicates mostly through sign language.

She said: "I think there's a real strength of feeling among families in Surrey about the need for them (the council) to actually improve their provision for children with special educational needs.

"So when we heard that they were actually planning to make savings of £21 million, that provoked a strong reaction amongst lots of families.

"My son has just started at a mainstream school and he has got quite a lot of support needs. I don't want it to get harder for kids to be included in mainstream schools."

Alicia McColl, 44, whose 14-year-old son Kian Hollow is another of the claimants, with a range of needs including autistic spectrum disorder, said children would suffer if crucial support was withdrawn.

She said: "Inability to communicate leads to behavioural issues, social issues and exclusion."

Both women said they and two other mothers - Debbie Butler and Catriona Ferris - were bringing the case on behalf of families across the UK who were facing difficulties because of cuts to support budgets.

Ms Butler is also joining the case on behalf of her children Zoe, 15, and Sean, 12, and Ms Ferris's son is 15-year-old Dominic.

Jenni Richards QC, representing the families, told the court their witness statements revealed the importance of the support they receive.

She said: "They show the vital importance of special educational needs (SEN) services to the children with such needs and their families, and show the importance from those families' perspectives of consultation, involvement and being able to have their say."

Ms Richards said the claimants accept local authorities are under "real financial pressure" and may have to make "difficult decisions".

But she added: "The decision to make such a substantial reduction in funding in the defendant's area was made with little or no information as to, or consideration of, how savings might be made, what the impact might be, or how disabled children and others with protected characteristics might be affected."

The four women were supported at the High Court by other parents of children with special educational needs.

Lawyers for the council argued that the claimants' case that the £21 million in savings was a "global and indiscriminate cut" to SEN services was "simply incorrect".

They said there were eight specific areas where reductions were made and these were the result of previous council decisions which were "properly impact-assessed and consulted upon at the time" and have never been challenged.

Jonathan Moffett QC, for the council, told the court the claimants' case ignored the fact that the savings identified "were not set in stone".

The case is being heard by Lady Justice Sharp and Mrs Justice McGowan, who are expected to reserve their ruling to a later date.

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