'Fraud' case dropped against school place mum

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The Independent Online

A council has dropped its legal case against a mother accused of using a false address to get her son into a popular state primary school, it was confirmed today.

Mrinal Patel, 41, was taken to court by Harrow Council in north London for allegedly using her mother's address when she applied for a place for her five-year-old son Rhys at Pinner Park First School in January last year.

Harrow Council brought the case under the Fraud Act 2006, but today it said that "issues" had been raised over whether the Act could be applied in this case.

Mrs Patel is believed to have been the first parent in England to face prosecution for school admissions fraud.

She claimed she lived at Willow Court, Fulbeck Way, Harrow, and had chosen the north London primary school because "it was close to home and she could walk", Harrow Magistrates' Court heard last month.

But four months later, when her son had been offered a school place, council staff found the address she had used did not match its tax records.

It was alleged she was living in Streatfield Road, Harrow - her current address.

Mrs Patel told the BBC she was relieved and the council's decision proved she was innocent.

Councillor David Ashton, leader of Harrow Council, said: "The initial hearing has raised issues over the use of the Fraud Act 2006.

"While we stand by the substance of our case, subsequent legal advice is that technical legal arguments over the interpretation of the Act could pose a risk to the success of the action."

The council decided to withdraw the action to avoid potentially hefty legal costs, Mr Ashton said.

Mrs Patel told the BBC: "It's a great relief for me and my family. It's been an extremely difficult ordeal and I'm happy to put the matter behind me.

"I have from the outset denied the allegations and the council's unconditional withdrawal of the proceedings confirms my innocence."

Mrs Patel said that when she made the application, she had been living at her mother's address in Willow Court and had no intention of going back to her matrimonial home - although she did return after four weeks.

She acknowledged that she had wrongly stated on the application form that she had been living at her mother's address for 14 years but said she had been under a lot of pressure at the time.

"I totally understand how it may appear. I explained that to the council, I gave them my full circumstances. I was totally honest and truthful about them," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In the academic year for which Mrs Patel applied - 2008/09 - 411 parents expressed a preference for Pinner Park, and 90 places were offered to children living less than a mile from the school, according to Harrow Council.

Mr Ashton said; "This case was never about persecuting mothers who wish to do the best for their children. It was about defending the integrity of the school system against those who might seek to flout it.

"We always seek to resolve issues over school admission by dialogue. However, we will continue to consider court action as a last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted."