Prosecutions and Court
As a parent, you are legally responsible for ensuring that your children receive a suitable education. Should your child fail to regularly attend the school at which he/she is registered then the council may take legal action against you.
Failure to ensure a child’s regular attendance at the school at which he/she is a registered pupil is a criminal offence under the Education Act 1996. If convicted under Section 444 (1) of the Act a parent can be fined up to £1000 for each offence. A conviction under Section 444 (1a) – which is the more serious offence when a parent knowingly allows a child to be absent from school without authorisation – can lead to a fine of up to £2,500 and/or 3 months in prison. If a parent is prosecuted under Section 444 (1a) he/she will be formally cautioned and interviewed under the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984.
If your child fails to attend school regularly, a School Attendance Officer from the council will usually invite you to a meeting at your child’s school. This meeting will take place before any decision is made to prosecute you and it is vital that you attend. At this meeting you and your child will be given the opportunity to explain why your child’s school attendance is so poor and to suggest how you intend to improve it. This meeting will be chaired by the council’s School Attendance Legal Interventions Officer.
At the end of the meeting a plan will be written and you will be asked to sign it. This plan will identify what you will do to improve your child’s attendance. You will be clearly told that if your child’s attendance does not improve you will be taken to court.
If you are being prosecuted following the issuing of a Penalty Notice which has not been paid, the above process will not take place. In this situation, it is likely the case will go straight to Magistrates Court following the end of the 28 day payment period.
The decision to prosecute – evidence
If your child’s attendance fails to improve and the council decides to prosecute you will receive a summons to appear before a magistrates court at a specified date and time. You will also receive a copy of a School Attendance Officer’s report, based on the work which he/she has done with you and your child. This is known as a Section 9 Statement. You will also receive a copy of an extract from your child’s school’s attendance register. This will be signed by your child’s headteacher and will show your child’s attendance record during the period for which you are being prosecuted.
You may wish to seek legal advice before the court date.
Attendance at Court
You must attend court at the time and date specified on the summons. If there is a good reason why you cannot attend at this time/date you must contact the court to explain. Only the court can decide whether to accept your explanation and to offer a new date. (If you do not turn up to court the magistrates may decide to hear the case in your absence. If this happens and they decide to find you guilty it is likely that your failure to turn up will increase the severity of any sentence imposed. The magistrates may also consider issuing a warrant for your arrest.)
A council officer will attend the court to present the case on behalf of the council. You may also bring your own solicitor. Or at court you may ask to speak with the duty solicitor.
A case is normally heard by three magistrates and on occasions a District Judge. When you get to court a court usher will show you where to go and what to do. The case will be heard in an "open" court so members of the public and the press may attend.
When you appear in court you will be asked to confirm your name, address and date of birth. The Clerk to the Court will read the charge as written on the summons and you will be asked to plead either "guilty" or "not guilty". If you plead "guilty", the court will hear the evidence presented against you by the council and will then give you the opportunity to explain why your child has not attended school regularly. (When presenting its evidence against you the council will ask the court to award costs against you should you be found guilty.
If you plead "not guilty" the case will be adjourned to a future date and be heard as a trial.
At the trial, you or your legal representative, will be able to make the case for your defence.
You will be able to challenge the grounds on which you have been prosecuted if you can demonstrate one or more of the following:
- your child’s absence was authorised by the school
- your child was absent due to an act of religious observance
- the distance from your home to your child’s school is beyond the statutory limit for walking and no transport is available; the limits are 2 miles for children aged under 8 and 3 miles for children aged 8 and over
- your child is not registered at the school and you are providing suitable education at home or elsewhere
- your trade or business requires you to travel from place to place
At the end of the trial the magistrates will decide whether you are "guilty" or "not guilty". If you are found "guilty" the court will then decide on a sentence.