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High Court judge quashes decision by council to cut SEND budget by £5m

School desks 146x219A High Court judge has quashed Bristol City Council’s decision to reduce spending on special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) by £5m.

The council said it was “disappointed” by the ruling, while the Local Government Association (LGA) responded by urging the government to provide sustainable funding so local authorities can manage rising demand.

According to Monckton Chambers, whose Steve Broach appeared for the claimant, His Honour Justice Cotter QC concluded following a rolled-up hearing at Bristol Civil Justice Centre on 24 July that:

  • Bristol were obliged both under statute and common law to consult with affected families before making budget reductions for SEND services, but had not done so;
  • There was no evidence of regard by decision makers to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children when making the decision, as required by section 11 of the Children Act 2004; and
  • The budget decision was also irrational because of a failure to have regard to relevant considerations.

The case was brought by law firm Simpson Millar on behalf of two of the families affected. They instructed Jenni Richards QC of 39 Essex Chambers and Monckton's Broach.

Partner Samantha Hale said: “The Court concluded that the process completed by Bristol City Council before reaching its decision was flawed. Furthermore, the Court confirmed they were unable to determine what the outcome would have been in the absence of the legal errors. The Judge held that ‘full funding might have been allocated’.

“Bristol City Council will now have to reconsider its funding allocation to the High Needs Block budget and to do so in a lawful way, as the Court has confirmed that the High Needs Budget will be quashed. This is a very important recognition that while local authorities may have to cut budgets, they may only do it, if it is done lawfully.

“Our clients hope that Bristol City Council will recognise the serious concerns about SEN services and outcomes reflected in the judgment when taking the new funding decision.”

Commenting in response to the ruling, Cllr Craig Cheney, Deputy Mayor with responsibility for Finance at Bristol, said: “We are disappointed by the court’s decision and will carefully consider the detail of the judgment and what implications it has before making a decision about what to do next.

“We truly appreciate how sensitive this issue is, and know it is difficult to contemplate changing budgets without causing concern. We want to stand united with local families and schools in highlighting the national funding shortage for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and work together with them on a way forward. It always was and remains our intention to work closely with everyone affected wherever required, considering carefully the details of how we might reduce spending and deliver SEND services within the grant given by Government.”

Cllr Cheney added: “The large pressure on our SEND budget is due to increasing demand and complexity of children and young people’s needs, but mostly because we do not get enough money from Government in this area. It is clear to all sides that funding needs to be sustainable and along with many other authorities we have written to the Government to highlight its lack of appropriate funding.

“We must still consider how this issue can be resolved. We will continue to make the case to Government for a sustainable, long term funding source whilst we work with local families, young people and education settings on the way forward for SEND services in Bristol.”

A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “While we await to see the implications this ruling could have for councils, the LGA has been clear all along that the Government needs to provide significant, ongoing and sustainable funding to help councils manage the rising demand in support from pupils with SEND.

“We have previously warned that unless councils are given the funding to meet this need, they may not be able to meet their statutory duties and children with high needs or disabilities could miss out on a mainstream education.

“This is why we are calling for an urgent review of funding to meet the unprecedented rise in demand that councils are experiencing.”

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