Supreme Court: Parents Don't Need Lawyer in Ed Cases
Monday, May 21, 2007
By Mark Sherman
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. -
Parents need not hire a lawyer to sue publicschool districts over their children's special education needs,the Supreme Court ruled Monday.The decision came in the case of an autistic boy from Ohio, whose parents argued they were effectively denied access to the courts because they could not afford a lawyer.Federal law gives every child the right to a free appropriate public education, which in the case of special needs children sometimes means enrollment in a private facility.But most federal courts had concluded that parents who are not lawyers and who want to challenge decisions have to hire an attorney to represent them.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, said parents have legal rights under the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, the main federal special education law."They are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on theirown behalf," Kennedy said. The court sided with Jeff and Sandee Winkelman and their son,Jacob, in their fight against the Parma, Ohio school district.The Winkelmans can't afford a lawyer or the cost of private schooling for Jacob. Neither parent is a lawyer.The parents objected to the Parma schools' plan to educate Jacobat a public school. They wanted the district to pay for his $56,000 yearly enrollment in a private school that specializes in educating autistic children.
The Winkelmans have spent about $30,000 in legal fees since firstcontesting Jacob's treatment in 2003. Jeff Winkelman has taken a second job while his wife has researched previous court rulingsand written her own filings.It is unclear how many parents forgo lawsuits because they can'tafford them, although advocates for disabled children said incourt papers that most parents of disabled children lack the meansto hire a lawyer.
Parents unhappy with a district's plan can appeal the decision through an administrative process. If they remain dissatisfied, they can file a civil lawsuit on their child's behalf, federal courts have said. At that point, however, most courts have saidthe parents must hire a lawyer.Whether Jacob should have private schooling at public expense wasnot before the Supreme Court, only his parents' right to go into federal court without a lawyer.The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in the school district's favor. Monday's ruling overturned that decision.The case number is Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 05-983.
Source: Washington Post