High Court Rules Hertfordshire County Council Acted Unlawfully in Failing to Complete EHC Plan on Time

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3138 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the High Court of Justice King’s Bench Division case of W, R (on the application of) v Hertfordshire County Council, [2023] EWHC 3138 (Admin), various legal principles related to the statutory duties of local authorities under the Children and Families Act 2014 were scrutinized. Particularly, this case centered on the local authority’s obligations to complete Education, Health and Care (EHC) needs assessments and issue EHC plans for children with special educational needs within statutory time limits. Additionally, the case navigated through the issues of systemic failures and the public authority’s accountability in judicial review when alternative remedies are unavailable.

Key Facts

The case involves a father (the Claimant), who challenges Hertfordshire County Council’s (Defendant) failure to adhere to its statutory duties in assessing his daughter, W, for special educational needs. Despite the Claimant’s request and the Local Authority eventually consenting, the assessment and subsequent EHC plan were not completed within the required timeline. The Local Authority’s pattern of conceding to assessments only after an appeal is filed was highlighted, as were the systemic shortcomings indicated by the high concession rates of appeals. The Local Authority recognized its breach of duty but failed to indicate a timeline for resolving the backlog of cases.

The legal principles at play involve the interpretation and application of duties under the Children and Families Act 2014 and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014. The court elucidated the following key points:

  1. Entitlement to Assessment: Under section 36 of the 2014 Act, when a Local Authority receives a request for EHC needs assessment, it must determine the necessity of such provision based on a low threshold which any child with a realistic prospect of needing special educational provisions meets.

  2. Duty to Notify: Section 36(5) obligates the Local Authority to notify the parent of the reasons for any decision not to conduct an assessment.

  3. Completion Timeframe: An EHC plan must be finalized within 20 weeks from the date of the request as per the statutory scheme (Regulation 2 of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014).

  4. Systemic Failure and Unlawfulness: The systemic issue, suggested in the judgment, may rise if the Local Authority’s pattern of decision-making is operating in a manner that breaches their legal obligations systematically.

  5. Judicial Review vs. Alternative Remedies: The Local Authority’s argument of alternative remedies through the Tribunal was dismissed as Tribunal could not be approached for the failure to complete assessments within the statutory time limit, making judicial review the proper recourse.

  6. Public Authority’s Duty in Judicial Review: Public bodies must be candid in judicial review proceedings, acknowledging any breach of statutory obligations.

  7. Damages: Public law breaches don’t normally confer the right to damages unless tied to a breach of human rights.

Outcomes

The court issued a declaration that Hertfordshire County Council acted unlawfully by failing to complete the EHC plan within the statutory period. There was no comment on the Claimant’s request for damages, but it was noted that the case could be transferred for adjudication within the Small Claims Court if not resolved. Additionally, the outcome suggested that systemic challenges to the Local Authority’s operations could be maintained, provided they are explicitly formulated and substantiated.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the court reinforced the strict statutory duties of local authorities to complete EHC needs assessments and issue plans within the mandated timeframes. It criticized the systematic pattern of the Hertfordshire County Council in failing to meet these obligations and acknowledged the right of claimants to pursue legal recourse through judicial review when alternative remedies are not available. The judgment also underpins the importance of public authorities being forthright in their statutory compliance, especially when engaging with judicial review proceedings.

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