Parents of Disabled Children Push for Judicial Review against Council’s Cuts to Disabled Children’s Services
The families of two disabled children will have their legal challenge against Warwickshire County Council heard at a “rolled up” hearing in the High Court today (29 January 2015), in what is understood to be the first judicial review to consider local authorities’ duties to disabled children following the reforms brought in under the new Children and Families Act on 1 September 2014.
In February 2013, Warwickshire County Council announced target savings of £1.786m from its budget for children’s disability services – approximately 35% of its budget. Families had expected the cuts to be just £225,000. Since then, the Claimants’ families alongside a group of local parents have been lobbying the Council to try and secure a fair and transparent consultation on the Council’s plans to reduce expenditure – which involve severely restricting access to Short Breaks, a scheme which provides essential respite for disabled children and their families.
After almost two years and four separate consultations which the Claimants’ argue were all unlawful, they feel that they now have no choice but to issue a legal challenge and have instructed law firm, Irwin Mitchell to seek a judicial review on the grounds that the Council has failed to properly consult over the proposed changes to disabled children’s social care because they are putting forwards plans that do not comply with the law.
A key concern of the families is that the proposals will mean that disabled children will not automatically be entitled to a social care assessment of their needs to identify what services or help they require. Instead, families will have to first prove that their child has “very complex needs” and unless they meet this high threshold, they will be denied access to certain types of services such as overnight respite.
Under reforms introduced on 1 September 2014, local authorities are now required to have a “Local Offer” which sets out in one place information on services across education, health and social care and from birth to 25; how to access specialist support; how decisions are made including eligibility criteria for accessing services where appropriate; and how to complain or appeal.
Law firm Irwin Mitchell argue that the Council’s Local Offer which has been published for consultation, and which includes its plans for reducing access to Short Breaks for disabled children, is unlawful as it’s content does not comply with the basic requirements laid down by the law.
Polly Sweeney, an Associate Solicitor in the Public Law team at Irwin Mitchell representing the families, said: “The Local Offer is an integral part of the changes introduced by the government under the Children and Families Act in order to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Its purpose is not only to provide clear information about the available provision and how to access it, but also to make provision more responsive to local needs and aspirations by directly involving children and young people, and their parents in its development.
It is therefore deeply concerning that not only does Warwickshire’s Local Offer consultation fail to provide essential information to families, but that it is being used to introduce cuts to disabled children's services and restrict access to essential Short Breaks – the very opposite of its intended purpose”.
The two disabled children involved in the legal action, whose names have been anonymised to protect their identity, are L, a 17 year old young man with severe learning difficulties and autism, and P, an 11-year-old girl who has been diagnosed with severe non-verbal autism and also has severe learning difficulties.
The mother of P, said: “Our daughter has severe autism and relies on access to Short Breaks to help provide essential stimulation while helping her to learn new skills and develop some independence that will make her easier to care for as an adult. The support we receive from the Council has allowed us to continue caring for our daughter in her home and we are desperately worried about the impact on our family if we lose this vital support.”
“We understand that Council’s across the country are facing financial pressures, however, Warwickshire has said that it is in a strong position to face these challenges – at the beginning of the current financial year they held reserves of £117million and have forecast an underspend in their budget this year of just over £7million. I therefore cannot accept that the savings that they are proposing to make to services for disabled children are “essential” as we have been told and I believe that throughout this process, the Council has failed to fairly consult with parents on this issue.”
The hearing is listed for two days on 29th and 30th January at the Royal Courts of Justice in London with a reserved judgment expected to be delivered at a later date.
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