The Supreme Court have chosen to back Isle of Wight Council after a father challenged a fine he was given for taking his daughter on holiday during term-time. This story hit the headlines when Jon Platt won previous legal battles against the fine, but now the Supreme Court has decided to rule against him, with Prime Minister Theresa May saying "It's right that the individual head teacher has that flexibility to make that decision” about the balance between absences and attendances Mr. Platt predicted that parents would regard relying on “the permission of the state” to take their children out of school during term-time as “utterly shocking”.
The interpretation of ‘regular’ attendance
The Supreme Court said the meaning of the word ‘regularly’ was at the core of the issue, and decided that failing to attend at any time when attendance was required by the School would be ‘irregular’. The lower courts’ interpretation differed from that of the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court gave a detailed interpretation of the legislation, including looking back at its history and said that prior to 1944, even a half-day’s absence could result in prosecution. Judges also said changes in legislation since then had not been designed to give pupils more opportunities to miss school without good reasons.
The Court also provided two other reasons for ‘regular’ not referring to how often a pupil attended school. They said that approach would be too vague to be a sufficient basis for criminal liability, as parents would have no way of knowing whether absences on particular days would be regarded as criminal. They also added that absences were disruptive and that any alternative to their approach could give the message that ignoring school rules was acceptable. Lady Hale said enabling parents to decide when their children could be absent from school would be a “slap in the face” to parents sticking to the rules.
It has been suggested that since the lower Divisional Court’s decision, several Local Authorities had stopped or reduced prosecutions for parents taking children out of school during term-time. It’s thought that the uncertainty resulting from the court’s decision was a big influence on this.
The Supreme Court did concede that their own interpretation of the word ‘regular’ could lead to criminal liability even for minor breaches. However, they argued this was not a sufficient reason to interpret the legislation differently and called for Local Authorities to have a ‘sensible prosecution policy’, including using penalty notices (with no prosecutions if paid), and for Courts to impose the minimum penalties where appropriate.. As the likelihood of prosecution policy being reviewed is low, it seems apparent that more prosecutions will occur due to the interpretation of the Supreme Court.
It now seems that when attendance, in line with school rules, has not taken place (aside from cases of illness, leave from school and unavoidable causes), prosecutions will lead to convictions. This means parents are advised not to remove their children from school without leave, even if just for a few hours. If children do miss school without permission, and not due to illness, it would generally be advisable to pay fines after receiving penalty notices, rather than face harsher punishments including criminal convictions if they fail to do so.