Parents need not hire a lawyer to sue public school 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.
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 Jacob at 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.
$30,000 in legal fees
The Winkelmans have spent about $30,000 in legal fees since first contesting Jacob’s treatment in 2003. Jeff Winkelman has taken a second job while his wife has researched previous court rulings and written her own filings.
It is unclear how many parents forgo lawsuits because they can’t afford them, although advocates for disabled children said in court papers that most parents of disabled children lack the means to 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 said the parents must hire a lawyer.
Whether Jacob should have private schooling at public expense was not 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.