Northern Ireland father Jon Platt wins court challenge over term-time Disney World holiday fine
A father who refused to pay a fine for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school for a family trip to Florida has won a landmark High Court ruling which looks set to force education chiefs to consider changing the law.
Jon Platt, who is originally from Northern Ireland, was fined by Isle of Wight Council after he took his family on the holiday, which included a visit to Walt Disney World, without permission from his child's school.
He was originally fined £60. This was then doubled because of his refusal to pay.
The dispute went before Isle of Wight Magistrates' Court in October when Mr Platt won the case.
But the local authority appealed against the decision at the High Court in London.
Mr Platt said he had won a victory which would benefit hundreds of other parents facing similar penalties.
But a Department for Education source said children's attendance at school was "non-negotiable" and " we shall now look to change the law and strengthen statutory guidance".
On Friday, Lord Justice Lloyd Jones and Mrs Justice Thirlwall dismissed the council's challenge, ruling that the magistrates had not "erred in law" when reaching their decision.
The magistrates decided Mr Platt had "no case to answer" because no evidence had been produced to prove that his daughter - who is now aged seven and can only be referred to as M for legal reasons - had failed to attend school "regularly".
The two High Court judges ruled that the magistrates were entitled to take into account the "wider picture" of the child's attendance record during the school year - M had an attendance rate of 92.3%.
They ruled the magistrates were not restricted, as the local authority had argued, to just considering her "0% attendance" when she was absent on the unauthorised holiday.
Lord Justice Lloyd Jones said: "I do not consider it is open to an authority to criminalise every unauthorised holiday by the simple device of alleging that there has been no regular attendance in a period limited to the absence on holiday."
After the ruling, Mr Platt said outside court: "I am obviously hugely relieved. I know that there was an awful lot riding on this - not just for me, but for hundreds of other parents."
But the Department for Education source said: "We will look at the judgment in detail, but we are clear that children's attendance at school is non-negotiable and we shall now look to change the law.
"We will plan to strengthen the statutory guidance to schools and local authorities."
Jonathan Bacon, leader of Isle of Wight Council, said the Platt ruling had " cast a shadow of doubt over the policies of schools and local authorities across the country".
He said: "We will be pressing the Department for Education to urgently consider creating clear legislation on this matter for the benefit of parents, schools and local authorities alike."
Motivation for parents to take term-time holidays is revealed by a new survey which shows that families face paying more than double the price for a package holiday as soon as school holidays begin.
A Local Government Association (LGA) spokesman said c hildren's education had to be treated "with the utmost seriousness", but it was clear that the current system "does not always favour families, especially those that are struggling to meet the demands of modern life or have unconventional work commitments".
The spokesman suggested there were occasions "when parental requests should be given individual consideration and a common sense approach applied".
Daniel Jackson, a solicitor with law firm Slater and Gordon, who has been involved in similar cases, warned that the Platt ruling could encourage other parents to challenge the fines they have received, and clarification was needed on what constitutes "regular" school attendance.
Earlier, Mr Platt, 44, said the case had cost him £13,000, which he described as "money well spent". Following his High Court success, the local authority was ordered to contribute £14,631 towards his legal costs.
Taking his daughter out of school was not about the cost but rather the principle that he should not be criminalised for doing so, he said.
A survey by travel money provider FairFX of package holidays for a family of four at a four- star hotel in Tenerife, Majorca, the Costa del Sol and the Algarve found that prices increase by up to 115% compared with the same trip taken two weeks before schools close for the summer.
Mark Jackson, appearing for the local authority, had argued that parents "cannot simply take their children out of school to take them on holiday, or for any other unauthorised reason".
He argued section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996 stated that if a child failed to attend school regularly the parent was guilty of an offence, subject to certain statutory exceptions which did not include holidays.
The policy of M's school made it clear that holidays in term time "would not be authorised", said Mr Jackson.
He argued the magistrates should not simply have asked themselves "had the child attended school regularly" but whether she had attended regularly "during the period identified in the summons - 13-21 April 2015".
That was the period when she had been on holiday with her family and her attendance rate was "0%".
Rejecting the submission, Lord Justice Lloyd Jones said t he school's attendance register showed that M had an attendance rate of 92.35%, adding: "I consider the magistrates correctly had regard to the wider picture".
"In all the circumstances of this case I am unable to say their conclusion was not one reasonably open to them."