Council's £71k barrister bill to fight disabled children's parents in court

Alex Tomczynski (left) and Steven Wright have spent thousands fighting the council in court

Alex Tomczynski (left) and Steven Wright have spent thousands fighting the council in court over the education of their disabled children - Credit: Getty Images/ Alex Tomczynski/ Steven Wright

A council is spending thousands of pounds fighting the parents of disabled children in court — despite winning just three in ten cases.

A Freedom of Information request reveals Suffolk County Council (SCC) spent more than £71,000 on barristers in the last ten years to defend itself against appeals lodged by the parents of children who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

Between September 2020 and July 2021 alone this figure reached £31,725, with barristers hired on 13 separate occasions.

This is on top of the £37,000 in compensation the council had to pay to families over a similar period following ombudsman investigations ruling in the parents' favour.

Children with disabilities or learning difficulties have legally-binding educational health care plans (EHCPs) drawn up by the local authority to determine which types of therapy and specialist support they require. 

Sometimes the provision costs hundreds of thousands of pounds.

At independent autism specialist school Acorn Park in Banham, annual placement fees for day pupils start at £64,000. For residential placements it can reach £140,000.

But Suffolk SEND group Campaign for Change has accused the council of making EHCPs "deliberately vague" in an effort to deflect its expensive obligations when challenged. 

Endeavour House in Ipswich

Suffolk County Council has spent thousands hiring barristers to defend it in court - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

This, they said, left parents with only one course of action if they feel their child’s needs are being ignored - taking the council to court. 

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Steven Wright, from East Bergholt, said his tribunals against the council for his two adopted children with special needs cost him thousands. 

He said: “I’ve lodged so many appeals I’ve lost count. 

“I think I’m up to about 14 now, with one ongoing. The council is entirely adversarial. They fight you every step of the way. 

Steven Wright has two adopted children, both with SEND

Steven Wright has two adopted children, both with SEND. He has "lost count" of the amount of times he's taken the county council to tribunal - Credit: Steven Wright

“With my daughter, the council's assessment was shockingly brief, and my solicitor told me it was inadequate. When I appealed, the council opposed all aspects without any reasoning whatsoever.

“They conceded before the hearing but it was too late to cancel it. It’s all a complete waste of taxpayer’s money."

Rachel Hood, cabinet member for SEND at SSC, said the amount of appeals were high in recent years because the council was dealing with the "remnants" of historic complaints, but that numbers were beginning to fall.

Parents can launch appeals if they think the EHCP is not specific enough, or if they disagree with a council's decision not to issue one for their child.

Rachel Hood head shot

Conservative cabinet member for education at Suffolk County Council, Rachel Hood. - Credit: Simon Lee Photography Suffolk UK

According to Ms Hood, the council always tries to resolve issues with the family before having to go to tribunal.

She said: "Only 97 appeals were lodged in response to the 6,252 decisions made for SEND pupils by the council in 2020.This appeal rate of 1.6pc is below the national average.

"We are in the process of undertaking a significant overhaul and improvement of our SEND services.

"While we recognise this may take time, we are already doing many things differently and will continue to do so.

"I am confident the pace and impact of our improvements so far are already delivering positive outcomes." 

But when appeals do make it to court, figures show it is usually the parent who comes out on top.

Of the 132 appeals heard at tribunal between 2019-2021, 97 were upheld by the judge. Just 35 were denied, giving the council a success rate of 29pc.

Alex Tomczynski, from Rushmere Saint Andrew, spent £10,000 getting together evidence for the appeal tribunal for his four-year-old son in 2020. His appeal was upheld and he said the council didn't offer up any counter-evidence.

Alex Tomczynski won his tribunal against the council over the education provision of his disabled son

Alex Tomczynski won his tribunal against the council over the education provision of his disabled son - Credit: Alex Tomczynski

In fact, documents show the judge overseeing the case said the council was “unable to engage to any significant extent with [Mr Tomczynski’s evidence], beyond asserting that... the LA considered [his son’s] needs could be met elsewhere”. 

"It's a delaying tactic”, Mr Tomczynski said. “Most parents can’t afford to go to tribunal and simply put up with the useless EHCP they’ve been given. 

“But if they can take the council to court, it normally takes a year to conclude, and during that time the council does not have to pay for therapy or school placements for a disabled child." 

But the 40-year-old said this “delaying strategy” often backfired.  

“The council had a chance to pay for a local therapist but because they dithered they lost that opportunity", he added.

“Instead, they're paying about ten times more for an occupational therapist to come up from London once a week. It's ridiculous."

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