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Parents who take their children out of school on holiday during term time without permission could be liable to prosecution, the UK’s highest court has ruled.

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of education authorities who prosecuted a father who refused to pay a £120 fine for taking his daughter on holiday during term time.

Isle of Wight council and the Department for Education brought the legal challenge against parent Jon Platt to bolster a 2013 rule that forbids headteachers from granting a leave of absence to pupils unless “exceptional circumstances” prevail.

Some parents have complained the new rule means they have to book expensive holidays at peak times.

The landmark court case turned around the Isle of Wight Council’s appeal in a case involving Mr Platt, who took his young daughter on a seven-day family trip to Disney World in Florida in April 2015.

Mr Platt was fined £60 after taking his child out of school and after refusing to pay, the Isle of Wight council doubled his penalty to £120. It prosecuted him at magistrates court on the basis that his alleged failure to secure regular attendance at school of his daughter was a breach of section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.

Mr Platt successfully challenged the case in the lower courts arguing that he had no case to answer because his daughter’s school register showed her attendance was 90.3 per cent after her holiday.

The Supreme Court was asked to interpret the meaning of section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996 whereby if a school child fails to attend school “regularly”, their parent is guilty of a criminal offence unless they can argue they are covered by certain legal exceptions.

On Thursday the Supreme Court backed the council and Department of Education and ruled that “regularly” means in accordance with rules prescribed by the school.

Mr Platt will now have to return to Isle of Wight magistrates court to face prosecution. The Supreme Court said Mr Platt will be guilty of the offence unless he can argue he is covered by one of the legal exceptions covering a child’s absence from school- such as sickness, religious observance or if the headteacher has authorised the child’s absence.

The legal case is being closely watched as new figures show rising numbers of parents are being prosecuted after their child missed school without permission.

In 12 months, the numbers of parents facing court action increased by more than a fifth, with almost 20,000 people taken to court in 2015 alone, statistics obtained by the Press Association show.

In her ruling, Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said that although there are concerns that a single missed attendance could lead to more criminal prosecutions, the answer is a sensible prosecution policy which can deal properly with minor breaches.

“Unauthorised absences have a disruptive effect, not only on the education of the individual child, but also on the work of other pupils, and of their teachers,” she said on Thursday.

“In some cases, of which this is one, this can involve the use of fixed penalty notices which recognise that a person should not have behaved in this way but spare him a criminal conviction.” Lady Hale said in her ruling.

At the Supreme Court hearing in January, the local authority, backed by the Education Secretary, had argued a child’s unauthorised absence from school ”for even a single day, or even half a day” can amount to a criminal offence.

James Eadie QC, appearing for the education secretary, argued it would be “absurd” if parents could head off on holiday with children when “the sun is out and foreign climes beckon” in a way that “undermined” government policy on unauthorised absences.

But a barrister for Mr Platt described the submission as a new and radical interpretation of the law which was absurd and would ”criminalise parents on an unprecedented scale”.

Clive Sheldon QC, appearing for Mr Platt, said the education authorities’ interpretation of the law was absurd and would “penalise millions of people”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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