Parents of special needs pupils can sue councils

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The Independent Online

Local councils can be sued for failing to provide proper education for special needs children, the law lords ruled yesterday, opening the way for hundreds of claims.

Local councils can be sued for failing to provide proper education for special needs children, the law lords ruled yesterday, opening the way for hundreds of claims.

The lords found that four former pupils had the same right to seek compensation from education authorities as from professionals such as doctors or financial advisers.

The judgment, by a panel of seven, overturned earlier rulings in the Court of Appeal that local education authorities did not owe a duty of care to children with special educational needs.

The case was brought by three dyslexia sufferers, who tried to sue their local authorities for failing to diagnose the condition, and a fourth child, a boy aged 16, suffering from muscular dystrophy.

Handing down his judgment, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead said there was "no escape" from the view that teachers owed a duty of care to all their pupils.

He dismissed fears of "gold-digging actions brought on behalf of under-achieving children", which would tie up education authorities in legal action. "I am not persuaded by these fears," he said. "I do not think they provide sufficient reason for treating work in the classroom as territory which the courts must never enter.

"If a teacher carelessly teaches the wrong syllabus for an external examination and provable financial loss follows, why should there be no liability?"

Jack Rabinowicz, the solicitor for two of the dyslexia sufferers, hailed the judgment as a landmark. He said he knew of 65 cases that might now go to court and predicted that up to 500 individuals might have claims. "This is a fundamental statement by the English courts that if mistakes do take place in the education system then teachers and local education authorities can be liable."

One of the dyslexic claimants, Pamela Phelps, was awarded £45,650 damages, which had been withdrawn after a previous ruling in the Court of Appeal.

She had sued Hillingdon council in northwest London after she had to leave school early and pay for private tuition before taking her GCSEs. She said she would use her damages to pay for the education she had missed.

Another case was brought by Marcus Jarvis, a fellow dyslexic, who had no formal education after the age of 12. He had tried to sue Hampshire County Council, but the Court of Appeal had ruled he had no right to take the authority to court.

Carol Orton, the policy manager at the British Dyslexia Association, said the judgment was a warning to teachers and local authorities. "We know there are a lot of cases on hold following the Court of Appeal judgment," she said. "We would hope this is a sort of trigger for local authorities, colleges and employment services to make sure adults with dyslexia have a way forward."

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