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Guidance for Parties, Representatives and Witnesses in SEN Appeal Hearings

These guidance notes are issued for the benefit of all those who may be involved in an SEN appeal tribunal hearing either as parties, representatives or as witnesses in the hope that they can provide realistic expectation of what the proceedings will involve.  The aim is to provide a generally consistent approach as to how cases are heard.  The responsibility on the Tribunal is to ensure that the hearing is conducted in such a way that the issues in dispute are properly explored in a manner which does not involve confrontation, discomfort or distress to any parties or witnesses. It is accepted that attending a Tribunal can be a stressful experience as the hearing is the result of a dispute or disagreement which cannot be settled by normal means.

What is the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Tribunal ?

The SEND Tribunal deals with appeal cases in certain situations where a parent is in dispute with their Education and Library Board (“Board”).  The parent will be of the view that the Board is not dealing with their child’s special educational needs or disability appropriately. The parent may appeal to the SEND Tribunal which is an independent body and has no connection with the Department of Education or any of the Boards.

How is a Tribunal panel made up?

The Tribunal consists of a panel of three people – a Chairman and two Lay members.

The Chairman - is a lawyer appointed by the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission.
The Lay Members are appointed by the Department of Justice and will have experience of special educational needs and/or public administration.

The Tribunal is completely independent and all Tribunal members are required to be strictly impartial and to decide each case on the basis of the law and the evidence before them.

Who is at the hearing?

  • The Tribunal panel
  • The parents of the child
  • The child may also attend, but will not usually be present for the full hearing
  • Representatives of the Board
  • Legal representatives/representatives for both parties
  • Witnesses for the parent and board – which may include teachers, educational psychologists, or occupational therapists etc.
  • The Tribunal hearing clerk

SEN appeal hearings are not open to the public and in general only the parties involved in the case are present. On occasions observers may attend. Anyone attending must have approval of the panel and other parties to be present.

Where does the Tribunal take place?

The SEND Tribunal is based at The Tribunal Hearing Centre, 3rd Floor, Bedford House, Bedford Street, Belfast and most hearings take place here.  A map showing the location of the Hearing Centre is attached along with details of the facilities available.  On occasions SEN appeal hearings may take place in a courthouse if this is more convenient to the parties.  If this is the case, you will be notified in advance and also given a location map.

What happens when I get to the hearing?

When you get to the hearing you will be met by a member of G4S who will show you the appropriate waiting area.  The hearing clerk will explain what will happen, where things are and answer any questions you may have.  When the panel is ready, the clerk will show you to the Tribunal hearing room. The Tribunal Chairman will explain procedures to everyone before the hearing begins. Parties will normally remain in the Hearing room throughout the proceedings together with their representatives.

What will happen during the hearing?

The Tribunal Chairman will try to make things as straightforward as possible so that everyone can give their point of view. The Tribunal members will ask questions and will use minimum legal or educational jargon. If their questions are unclear, you can ask them to explain what they mean before you answer.

How do witnesses give their evidence?

It is the intention that SEN appeal hearings are as informal as possible and witnesses are able to comment on points that are raised. However the Tribunal panel will give direction on the format of proceedings as required.

Usually the Board representatives will take their witnesses through their evidence first and thereafter, the representatives for the parents will ask questions.

Witnesses at SEN appeal hearings are not usually required to take the oath but on occasions this may be required.  It is expected that all witnesses are as honest as they can be in giving their evidence. They are not there to “take sides” but to give their honest opinion on a range of issues. The Tribunal will, where appropriate, take a view as to the reliability and credibility of the evidence heard in reaching their decision. The aim of the Tribunal is to find the most appropriate way forward for the child’s education. If the Tribunal requires an oath to be administered, the hearing clerk will assist and explain what to do,    
Where a witness is asked a question and does not know the answer then they should say so.  If they are uncertain about the answer they should indicate this.  They should not try to give the answer they think the Tribunal or the party who has called them wants to hear.  Very few witnesses have perfect recall of events.

The Tribunal will take a note of the evidence.  It is not a word for word record but at certain points those being heard may be asked to stop or speak more slowly so that evidence or submissions may be noted more accurately.

Professional witnesses

Where a person giving evidence also has a relevant professional qualification, it is appropriate for the Tribunal to be made aware of the background and experience of the witness who appears before them. However parties should not feel that the more qualifications of the expert the more weight will be placed on their opinion.  It is usually better to have witnesses who know the child well rather than witnesses who have considerable expertise but little or no contact with the child.

Where the qualification is relevant to the additional support needs of the child then that person may be asked to express an opinion based on the child but also based on their professional experience.  Such a witness might well have prepared reports which form part of the case bundle and will often be asked to refer to particular pages in evidence.

It is not unusual for parties questioning or for the Tribunal to put hypothetical situations to witnesses with a professional qualification and ask for their view.  This is quite proper in such types of hearing.  If a witness is unable to express any view, then they should say so and explain why.

Conduct at hearings

In most cases the Tribunal will be aware that the parties will be in a continuing relationship after the hearing is ended, whatever the outcome, and will expect that the proceedings are conducted in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect.  The Chairman will endeavour to ensure that any questions put to the parties are not unreasonable, hostile or inappropriate.  Representatives may object to certain questions being asked even if they are being asked by the Tribunal.  It may be necessary to press witnesses on certain points of importance or to revisit aspects of evidence to understand inconsistencies.  This is part of the process to ensure a fair hearing.

Can a witness be summoned to attend a hearing?

Yes – if a person is summoned by the Tribunal to attend a hearing as a witness they are bound to do so subject to notified penalties, which may be imposed for failure to attend but they will not be treated any differently from witnesses who have attended without summons.  It is recognised that some witnesses may require to be summoned to attend in order to be released from their employment.

In what circumstances could a teacher be involved?

  • A teacher, of his or her own volition, may feel it appropriate to advise a parent of the existence and role of the SEND Tribunal or
  • Parents may ask their child’s teacher for information on the Tribunal, if they are considering an appeal.  If this is the case, there is a comprehensive ‘How to Appeal Booklet’ aimed at parents or an interest group which might help parents. (see end for details on how to obtain booklet)
  • A teacher could be called as a witness
    • By the parents or
    • By the board or
    • Asked to provide some form of written evidence.

How long will the hearing last?

On occasions it is unavoidable that witnesses find that they have to wait before giving their evidence.  There will be a separate room set aside for the witnesses of each party in which to wait.  They may wish to bring a book to read or something to do to help pass the time.  A witness may be taken out of turn if there are pressing reasons.  Please let the hearing clerk know if this is the situation and the Tribunal will be consulted about how to accommodate this.

The hearing will normally last between a half and a full day. However it should be borne in mind that it is always very difficult to estimate exactly how long each witness will take to give evidence.  There will usually be a short break in the proceedings as well as a lunch break.  If you need other breaks, you can ask the Chairman.  Some cases last longer than a full day or may need to be adjourned for further evidence to be provided.  If this is the case we will try to arrange a suitable return date with all parties at the hearing.

Can expenses be claimed?

In certain circumstances witnesses may be entitled to claim expenses.  Queries in relation to this should be directed to the Tribunal hearing clerk.

How do I find out more?

Further information about the SEND Tribunal is available here on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals website.

View a copy of the How to Appeal Booklet or alternatively you can contact a member of the SEND secretariat on details below.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal

3rd Floor
Bedford House
16 – 22 Bedford Street
Belfast BT2 7FD

Tel: 028 9072 4887
Fax: 028 9072 4826

Email: tribunalsunit@courtsni.gov.uk

You can view information on location, transport, facilities and services available at our Tribunals Hearing Centre (in Bedford House) in this PDF leaflet.