The recent ruling (6th April) that a father, Jon Platt, who took his six year old daughter out of school for a holiday in Florida, should pay a £120 for her unauthorised absence raises some interesting issues from a legal perspective.
Mr Platt of the Isle of Wight had successfully challenged the fine imposed on him by his local council with local magistrates finding there was no case to answer and the High Court subsequently upheld the decision before it was referred to the Supreme Court.
However, as a family lawyer, I was far from surprised by the Supreme Court’s ruling which upheld the appeal by the Isle of Wight council and the Department of Education that Mr Platt should pay the penalty notice issued. While the father said that the decision symbolised that the ‘state was taking the rights away from parents’, the concept of the law and Courts deciding on what is best for the child, is far from unusual. In fact, in family law, the courts will often take an objective view of what it considers to be the child’s best interests even if these conflict with the views of the parents. There are plenty of examples of this, such as in care cases where the child’s welfare is obviously paramount.
What’s more, the judges also have to consider the wider community interests. As Lady Hale is reported to have said in her judgement: “Unauthorised absences have a disruptive effect, not only on the education of the individual child, but also on the work of other pupils, and of their teachers.” It is right that a landmark case such as this is viewed in the wider context as it is a public policy issue – truancy is a real social problem, and for the law to be seen to be condoning it in any way would obviously set a very bad precedent.
The previous argument that, as the child had a record of ‘regular’ attendance, this should be taken into account, was not upheld by the Supreme Court. What’s more, Lady Hale also said that allowing parents to take their children out of school in term time would be a ‘slap in the face’ for those parents who obeyed the rules.
It is welcome that the law has now provided such clarity. We have come across cases of parents disagreeing about whether or not one parent should be allowed to take their children out of school for holidays, but it is now very clear that if they do, it will be against the law and they will be liable to being fined.
However, the Supreme Court also advocated that the individual head teacher should be able to make the decision as to whether there were ‘exceptional circumstances’ which would make it acceptable for the child to be absent from school during term time. Thus, there is still scope for the school and the Local Education Authority to make exceptions to the rule, depending on the merits of the particular case.
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