The Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) is a legal forum which hears certain disputes between parents and the education authority (EA).  

Here we give you information about what decisions you can appeal and the appeal process

Please note, this doesn’t cover disability discrimination claims, which are also heard by SENDIST. 

What decisions can I appeal?

An appeal to the tribunal can be made by a parent or carer of a child with special educational needs (SEN) if the EA:

  • refuses a request made by you or your child’s school to carry out a statutory assessment or re-assessment of your child’s needs (as long as no assessment has been carried out in the last six months)
  • refuses to issue a statement of SEN following a statutory assessment (a Note in Lieu may be issued but this is still a refusal to make a statement)
  • has made or amended a statement and you disagree with what it says (ie the description of your child’s SEN in Part 2, the special educational provision specified in Part 3, the school named in Part 4 or the fact that no school is named in Part 4)
  • decides not to maintain your child’s statement any more
  • re-assesses your child but refuses to amend their  statement
  • refuses your request to change the school named in your child’s statement (as long as you have asked for a grant-aided school and your child’s statement has been maintained by the EA for at least a year).

You can’t appeal to the tribunal if you have a complaint about your child’s school or if your child is not receiving the provision set out in their statement. 

These types of complaints would have to be pursued with the school and/or EA. If you still have concerns after speaking to the school or EA you may be able to complain to the Department of Education or Northern Ireland Ombudsman. You may also want to consider contacting the EA’s Dispute Avoidance and Resolution Service (DARS) officer.

Our Education Advice Line can offer further information and advice – 0808 800 4102, option 5.

How SENDIST operates 

Your appeal will be heard by a panel of three people: 
  • a legally qualified chairperson, and 
  • one or two other members, who will have some knowledge and expertise in SEN. 
The tribunal panel will look at evidence from both you and the EA before making a decision according to the law on the best way for the dispute to be resolved.

The tribunal is independent from local and national government.

The SENDIST appeal process 

Deadline for appealing

Your appeal has to be lodged within two months from the date you received the decision letter from the EA. If you have missed your deadline contact SENDIST for advice.

How to appeal 

You need to complete the SEN appeal form.  Before doing so, you should read the How to appeal booklet

When returning the form you should send:  
  • the decision letter from the EA
  • a copy of statement and appendices (reports) where one exists, or Note in lieu and appendices
  • a copy of statutory assessment/reassessment request letter, if relevant
  • details of the school you wish your child to attend, if relevant. 

The procedure once your appeal reaches the tribunal

Registering an appeal

The tribunal will register the appeal after they have checked that it’s valid and that you’ve provided the relevant information. If they feel you’ve missed key information or don’t have a valid appeal right, they will contact you.  

You will normally have 10 working days to supply more information.  

Within 10 days the tribunal should then send you a registration document which acknowledges your appeal and gives you a specific appeal number. 

The registration document will give you some important dates which you need to make a note of, including:
  • the deadline for you to send back the Attendance Form informing the tribunal of any witnesses, representative or supporters you wish to bring
  • the deadline for you and the EA to send your case statements to the tribunal (normally 30 working days after your appeal is registered). 

Before completing the attendance form you should read the accompanying guidance.

Preparing a case statement and extra evidence

Your case statement is an opportunity for you to expand on or update your reasons for appeal and to provide the tribunal with any further or updated evidence. 

While you have a choice about whether to submit a case statement the EA must submit one within the deadline. The EA’s case statement must contain details of why they are opposing your appeal and any evidence they have in support. They should also provide a summary of the facts and what your child thoughts are.  

If you or the EA have extra evidence that is not available before the end of the case statement period, it will normally be accepted if the tribunal and other party receive it at least five working days before the hearing.

If the evidence you or the EA have is not submitted five working days before the hearing then permission must be asked for it to be presented at the hearing and six copies of the paperwork provided. 

It will only be accepted if there are exceptional circumstances and if your child’s interests would be adversely affected if the tribunal were not to take the evidence into account.

Witnesses

You are allowed to bring two witnesses to the hearing. If you wish to bring more than two witnesses you must request to on the Attendance Form or in a separate letter.

The EA will normally bring at least two witnesses who know your child and can comment on their SEN. This will often be a teacher and an educational psychologist or therapist.

While these are formally recorded as the EA’s witnesses, their duty is to give accurate and up-to-date information about your child and their SEN. It’s often the case that their presence will also be helpful to you and that it’s not necessary for you to bring any witnesses along to the hearing.

If there is someone who the EA is not bringing as a witness that would be helpful to your case, then ask them if they are prepared to be your witness. They may have reservations or refuse to if they are employed by the EA.

If they do refuse, you can write to the President of the Tribunal explaining why you think it is important for them to attend. If they agree they will issue a witness summons, so that the person has to attend the tribunal.

If you obtained independent evidence as part of your appeal and the EA is disputing it, then ask your independent experts along as witnesses so they can answer any questions or defend any challenges to their reports.    

You can also bring up to two people with you for support, but they aren’t allowed to take part in the hearing. 

Read more about preparing your case

The SENDIST hearing

Once you arrive at a hearing you should find that the panel have read all of the paperwork relating to your appeal and are familiar with the case, your views and the opposing views of the EA.  

There may be some preliminary issues for the tribunal to deal with, such as any applications you or the EA have made to admit late evidence. The tribunal panel will compile a potential ‘list of issues’ which they have identified as being the main things to be decided on and you will be given an opportunity to add or remove to this list at the beginning of the hearing. 

At the hearing you will be given the chance to put your views across, call witnesses and ask the EA‘s witnesses questions. You will also have the chance to present a summary of your case. The EA will have the chance to do the same. Usually the panel will have their own questions they will wish to ask the witnesses.

Your child can attend and express their views at the hearing if they want to, but are not expected to attend and the Chairman is not likely to agree to them staying for the whole hearing.

Further guidance on attending a tribunal is available.

SENDIST’s decision

The tribunal will look at all the information and evidence provided both in written form and at the hearing.

Once they have made a decision they will aim to write to you and the EA within 15 working days of the hearing. The letter should give an explanation of how and why the panel arrived at their decision. 

If the EA has been ordered to carry out certain actions as a result of the tribunal decision they will have strict time scales in which to carry out these actions.

What to do if you disagree with the tribunal’s decision

You can’t challenge the decision on the grounds that you disagree with it. You may be able to able to ask the panel to review the decision if there was an obvious error.

You only have 10 working days from the date the decision was issued to ask in writing for a review.

You and the EA have a further right of appeal to the High Court if you feel the tribunal has made a mistake about the law.

Overturning a tribunal decision is difficult and there are very limited circumstances in which this happens. 

We advise that you seek legal advice from a lawyer specialising in education law.  

What to do if the EA has not implemented the tribunal’s decision

The tribunal’s decision is legally binding and the EA must follow it. If they don’t, you should contact the Department of Education and make a formal complaint or you contact our Education Advice Line for further information and advice – 0808 800 4102, option 5. 

Tribunal timescales 

The tribunal will aim to hear your case within 14 weeks from the date that they registered your appeal and aim to give a decision within three weeks of the hearing. 

This process may take longer for various reasons, such as adjournments or public holidays. Write to the tribunal and request an earlier date, if you feel that the matter needs to be resolved urgently.

Finding Legal help

You may want to instruct a solicitor to act on behalf of your child.  Our autism services directory includes solicitors with experience in SEN Law. 

The Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission may be able to offer assistance in some education cases for families on a low income or benefits.

Further help from our charity

The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service can offer ongoing support. Our Tribunal Support Line can help you consider your options if you have a right of appeal to the tribunal and can help with making your appeal and preparing for the hearing.

Our Education Advice Line can give general information about educational rights and entitlements or advice on specific topics such as getting extra help in school, assessments, education plans, reviews or school transport.

Useful contacts

The Children’s Law Centre
Tel: 0808 808 5678

SENAC (Special Educational Needs Advice Centre) General Advice Line: 028 9079 5779

Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal
Tel: 028 90322894

Department of Education
Tel: 028 91 279279 

Dispute Avoidance and Resolution Service (DARS)
Tel: 028 37512383 

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
Tel: 028 90 500 600 

Last reviewed: 3 November 2016.