An online video made by the Ministry of Justice and a telephone helpline should mean legal representation is unnecessary in tribunals to determine whether children have special educational needs, ministers from the MoJ and Department for Education have said. Justice minister Oliver Heald QC (pictured) and Edward Timpson, minister of state for vulnerable children and families, were responding to research commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE)

The DfE report found that parents of children with special educational needs had spent up to £55,000 on legal costs when appealing local authority decisions on education health and care statements to tribunal. Evidence used covered mediation, and first tier and upper tier tribunals.

The DfE and MoJ’s joint response to the report said: ‘We want to ensure families and LAs… attend mediation without additional legal support.’ It continued: 'Bringing an appeal to the First-tier Tribunal [Special Educational Needs and Disability] can be daunting...'. To help families navigate their way through the process, the tribunal runs a telephone helpline and has produced a video, it states. The video is available on YouTube.

The findings highlight the lack of trust felt by parents in a tribunal that should not require lawyers, but at which local authorities routinely have legal representation.

The tribunal’s code of practice states its aim is to ensure that no legal representation is needed when appealing a decision. When ‘LAs used legal representation, this statement “rang hollow”,’ the report said.

Average legal costs incurred by a family with representation were £6,300, and the lowest was £280. The report noted: ‘Parents (except those eligible for legal aid) who chose to use legal representation [and] paid legal costs… viewed it as unfair that their taxes were also contributing to the costs incurred by their LA contesting the appeal.’

Appeals registered in the 42 local authorities that featured in the research increased from 268 in ‘Year 1’ (September 2014-August 2015) to 767 in ‘Year 2’ (2015-16). The combined cost of optional mediation followed by a full appeal, for local authorities, families and the tribunal, was £16,935 per case. 

Analysing the report, parents’ blog Special Needs Jungle said that despite an official stress on mediation, ‘the most consistently effective way to resolve disagreements about SEND is to appeal to the tribunal’.