Dáil Éireann - Volume 632 - 27 February, 2007

Written Answers. - Departmental Expenditure.

Mr. F. McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Science the amount of public money spent on legal cases against families of children with a disability in 2006 and to date in 2007 particularly in relation to services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7253/07]

  Ms Hanafin: Improving services for children with special needs has been and continues to be a major priority for this Government. Major progress has been made in recent years. Indeed, there are now 15,000 adults in our schools working solely with children with special needs, compared to just a fraction of this a few years back.

As well as providing for huge increases in staff, we have also improved the procedures for accessing extra support. A guaranteed allocation of resource teaching hours has been given to all primary schools, replacing the need for an individual assessment for every single child. And we have put a team of 80 local Special Educational Needs Organisers on the ground to work with parents and teachers and help them to get the appropriate support for their children.

Further improvements in services are on the way, with the roll-out of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Over €820 million is being provided for special education in 2007- €180 million, or nearly 30%, more than what was provided in the 2006 Estimates. A number of families have taken court proceedings against myself, as Minister for Education, and others, in respect of educational provision for children with special needs. It is, I think, fair to say that the parents involved are, generally, seeking a particular form of provision for their child. The State makes every effort to reach an agreement with the parents while having regard to their genuine concerns and wishes, Government policy, the best interests of the child and the expert advice available to it. In the last six years, only three cases have gone as far as being ruled upon by the Courts, all of which the State successfully defended. Judgment of the High Court is currently awaited in a fourth case.

Obviously I would prefer to use all the resources available to me for the provision of educational services. However, once a case has been brought, the State is entitled to defend the case, particularly when it has a different view of how the best interests of the child can be met within its constitutional and statutory obligations.

[1086] In 2006, my Department paid contributions towards the legal costs of the plaintiffs in special education cases of approximately €621,000. To date in 2007 payments for such legal costs by my Department amount to approximately €3,000.

In addition, in 2006, my Department made ex gratia payments in connection with the settlement of these cases of approximately €152,000 and approximately €13,500 to date in 2007.

Furthermore, my Department uses private and independent psychological advice in defending such cases and advising on educational provision in relation to the children involved, and engages Counsel to aid with complex Discovery requests. In 2006 these payments amounted to approximately €241,000 and in 2007 to date approximately €21,000.

The above payments do not refer exactly to those cases settled in that period, as payments are often made some time after settlement. Neither do the payments include the legal costs of the State itself in defending the proceedings, as these are borne by the Chief State Solicitors Office.

The number of these cases taken against the State is showing a downward trend and I believe that the establishment of the National Council for Special Education will further assist in the reduction in litigation by providing through its Special Educational Needs Organisers, a more focused and local response to individual needs. In addition, with the phased implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, parents who believe their child’s needs are not being met will have a process of mediation and appeals open to them. These are likely to prove more appropriate, and less costly, fora for the resolution of these issues, in the future.

Many of the cases taken against my Department over the years have related to provision for children with autistic spectrum disorders. The Government has attached a major priority to improving services for such children. There are currently 181 special classes for children with autism, attached to special and mainstreams schools — 16 preschool classes — 5 special classes for children with Asperger’s syndrome — 14 stand alone facilities providing an Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) specific methodology on a pilot basis. Two of these facilities have yet to be established.

I wish to assure the Deputy that I am determined to improve services for children with special needs even further and that this will continue to be a priority for me.