School fine solicitor: Law is unclear

It is not against the law to take your child on holiday during term-time, the lawyer who beat Blackpool Council in court this week said.

Sunday, 23rd October 2016, 10:49 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 5:53 pm
Michelle Smith pictured with her fine notice

Sebastian Sinclair, who successfully defended Cleveleys mum Michelle Smith at Blackpool Magistrates’ Court this week, said it doesn’t matter if headteachers agree to the time off or not, as long as youngsters attend school regularly.

Though parents still face holiday confusion because the term ‘regularly’ has yet to be defined legally, Mr Sinclair said this week’s ruling could mean schools and councils are less likely to issue fines.

Mr Sinclair, of Fylde Law, said: “The outcome of the case was always uncertain as the law is a little unclear.

Michelle Smith, of Thornton Gate in Cleveleys, who has overturned a fine for taking her children out of school

“However, as the court found at the trial, it is not and never has been an offence in itself for parents to take their children on holiday during school term time, without the head teacher’s permission, when the children’s school attendance is otherwise regular.

“Ms Smith’s daughter had good attendance and had been described in her latest school report as a ray of sunshine and an asset to the school.

“We are pleased that Ms Smith was successful in having the charge dismissed”.

Michelle was also helped by Richard Brigden from Garden Court North Chambers, which has an interest in civil liberties cases.

It worked for free with legal aid not being available.

Blackpool Council will have to pay its own costs, but said it was unable to say how much that would be because it had used a staff solicitor, while there is also a cost to the taxpayer for the court time.

Michelle’s school holiday saga began in March after she and partner Rick Lake took their five children on holiday, when four of them, who go to separate schools, were on their half-term break.

Despite sending a letter to Norbreck explaining the situation, Michelle was warned against taking Amelia out of school and was later ordered to pay £60 by Blackpool Council, acting on behalf of the school.

Michelle Smith, of Thornton Gate in Cleveleys, who has overturned a fine for taking her children out of school

The document, quoting the Education Act 1996, stated ‘if a child of compulsory school age who is a registered pupil fails to attend school regularly the parent is guilty of an offence’, but Michelle refused to pay and instead opted to have her day in court.

It was there magistrates threw out the case after Michelle successfully argued 10-year-old Amelia Lewis regularly attended school, even after going to Ibiza at Easter.

Speaking after leaving Blackpool Magistrates’ Court, said: “It’s lunacy to try and bring prosecution for someone normally in school every day. It’s been a long day but I’m over the moon and massively relieved.”

Amelia’s school, Norbreck Academy said it accepted the judge’s decision but would continue to uphold its policy on authorised absences.

The Department for Education said it’s up to schools to decide when to issue fines, using discretion as to what qualifies as ‘exceptional circumstances’, but said even one unauthorised absence could land parents in hot water, regardless of how often they attend school.

That policy was recently challenged in the High Court by Jon Platt from the Isle of Wight, who successfully argued his daughter ‘regularly’ attended school.

He now faces a Supreme Court showdown with his local authority after it appealed the High Court’s decision.