MORE than £160,000 has been spent by Worcestershire County Council on battling legal cases involving children with special needs.

Between January 2017 and August 2018, the county council paid £163,750 to legal firms fighting special educational needs and disability (SEND) cases on its behalf.

It is understood that these disputes relate to education, health and care plans (EHCPs), which are required before a child can attend a special needs school or receive extra funding.

The council said it reaches agreements with the majority of families who complain about EHCPs, although in some instances the cases go through a legal process.

Louise Hunt, who spent £17,000 on lawyers in her battle to get a plan for her son, said: "It's so exhausting."

Her family was plunged into debt as a result of her fight with the council and she eventually decided to represent herself.

She added: "There are no words to describe the journey.

"When you are sleep deprived and facing challenges at home, it's so easy to think 'I just can't fight anymore'.

"Most people don't have the time or energy to read up on the law."

Mrs Hunt, aged 42, said some parents cannot afford to pay for legal help.

The Worcestershire mother applied for an EHCP assessment for her 12-year-old son, Noah, three times before turning to lawyers.

She said the council agreed to assess Noah, who has autism and other disorders, ahead of a tribunal which was then cancelled.

However, the council later refused to provide her boy with a plan.

Mrs Hunt appealed this decision and came up against the legal firm Baker Small, which had been employed by the council.

Baker Small made national headlines in 2016 over a series of tweets in which the firm appeared to be gloating over winning cases against the families of children with special needs.

When Mrs Hunt found out she was facing Baker Small, she decided to keep paying for lawyers, in part due to the firm's 'notorious' reputation.

She lost the tribunal in September 2017, however after further legal challenges the council reversed its original decision and agreed to provide a plan for her son, although by this point Noah had dropped out of school.

Mark Small, head of Baker Small, told the Worcester News that he had not worked for Worcestershire County Council for over a year.

Mr Small, whose firm now focuses on representing parents, said: "I wish Mrs Hunt well as it is an exhausting process where more needs to be done to resolve disputes without the costs of going to a tribunal and to avoid the stress involved."

Worcestershire County Council spent £302,000 on Baker Small between 2010 and 2016, according to the BBC.

Worcester mum Heather Saric, who waited 18 months for a draft EHCP for her son, said it was 'disgusting' that parents were spending thousands on legal representation in SEND cases.

She added: "A lot of these parents have already been through so much, to have that added stress is really disgusting.

"If the parents haven't got the knowledge – or the money to get legal firms – then it's going to be the children that miss out. "They won't be able to reach their full potential because they don't have the support in place."

Ms Saric, aged 34, of Penhill Crescent, Worcester, described the council's spending on legal firms as 'a waste of money'.

She added that the cash would have been far better spent elsewhere, such as on her son's special needs school, which has been forced to ask parents to contribute towards new minibuses and a sensory garden.

Emma Thorne, of Flyford Green, in Flyford Flavell, also encountered delays in receiving an EHCP for her nine-year-old son, Joseph.

A Worcestershire County Council spokesman said: "Worcestershire County Council seeks to place children with education, health and care plans into appropriate, high quality provision with the agreement and support of their families.

"Children with SEND needs and their families have the right to appeal if they disagree with a placement or aspects of provision.

"We try where possible in the first instance to work with families to try and reach an agreement. In most cases this is achieved but in a small number, it goes to a legal appeals process.

"There are a number of cases where the issues are complex and where specialist legal advice and support is required.

“This work in the past has been carried out by the law firm Baker Small although the county council has not used this company for appeals cases for around 12 months."

The Worcester News previously reported that the council was placing unlawful demands on parents seeking EHCPs for their children.