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Truancy trials – meet the parents hit by the single justice procedure

10 min read

Truancy laws mean that parents of children who miss school can be fined and prosecuted under a fast-track legal process. But is the system flawed, and should some absence cases be treated as a health issue, not an attendance one? Andrew Kersley reports

Imagine receiving a letter through the post, informing you that you’re about to be prosecuted for a crime you did not commit. Your defence and plea of not guilty won’t be considered. Instead, you will be found guilty in a private ruling, with only a single judge present in the room. There’s no prosecution, no defendant, no press, and no witnesses. And after all that, you will be left with a criminal record that could cost you your job.

This Kafkaesque scenario is no hypothetical, but the real-life ordeal faced by Scott Fitzsimmons. Accused of failing to ensure his autistic son’s regular school attendance, Fitzsimmons was prosecuted under the single justice procedure (SJP). This fast-track process handles around half of all prosecutions for less serious crimes. However, there’s growing concern among campaigners that it’s leading to a surge in unfair convictions.

Nowhere have those concerns been more acute than among parents facing criminal prosecution when their children miss school. The House spoke to nearly a dozen parents, some with children suffering from chronic illnesses, with special needs, or afraid to leave the house due to grooming incidents. Instead of receiving help to get their child into education, these parents faced automatic prosecution by their local council.

Campaigners and parents told The House that already flawed truancy laws are being exacerbated by this legal procedure, resulting in parents being wrongly prosecuted and convicted.

The problems for Fitzsimmons’ son first started to worsen during the pandemic, but it wasn’t until late 2022 that he began refusing to go to school. Although Fitzsimmons, a former school governor, was aware of the difficulties caused by pupil absence, compelling his autistic son to attend his secondary school in Wellingborough was almost impossible.

In numerous meetings with the school’s senior leadership team, Fitzsimmons asked for help to improve his son’s attendance, or source an alternative form of educational provision. Then, on 1 March last year, Fitzsimmons received a letter. He was being prosecuted under the SJP for his son’s low attendance.

“My biggest concern wasn’t the fine; it was more the criminal record,” Fitzsimmons says. His volunteer work, including with the fire service, police, and ambulance service, all while being the primary carer for his disabled wife, would have been jeopardised.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that, if I was convicted of my kid not going to school, I would have lost all those roles,” he tells me.

In response to the letter, Fitzsimmons submitted a plea of not guilty and provided supporting evidence. He later learnt that his plea and defence were never received. The return address given in his letter had been inactive for nine months and Fitzsimmons was found guilty in absentia.

“I honestly dread to think how many people have submitted a defence to that address, and they've been found guilty in their absence, and then accepted it,” says Fitzsimmons.

For Ellie Costello, the executive director of campaign group Square Peg, it’s an all-too familiar story. The group was set up to support parents like Fitzsimmons and campaign for reform of the UK’s truancy laws – that can see parents fined, sentenced to community service, or even sent to prison if their children do not attend school frequently enough.

In theory, the law should have exceptions for those who can’t attend school for good reason, but campaigners say that, as a result of slashed budgets for schooling, social care and wider council services, those safeguards are failing.

Of the 53,000 families in Costello’s group affected by attendance laws, stories come thick and fast about failures in the system. Like the family who suffered an extremely late-term miscarriage that left the mother in hospital for five days. When she came home, the family told the school they needed time off to mourn and hold a funeral for the baby. But they were prosecuted by the local authority all the way to a Magistrates’ Court – only an intervention by the judge aided by the family doctor stopped it going further.

One family lawyer describes a recent case involving a girl, groomed by local gangs and pregnant at 14, who was scared to attend school. The family had pleaded for support from the school or social services, even for their daughter to be moved, but the only response they received was a letter informing them they were being prosecuted.

Introduced in 2015, in an effort to streamline the prosecution of low-level offences such as speeding violations, the aim of SJP is to save costs for the UK’s overburdened and heavily backlogged courts system.

Under SJP, the courts write to defendants, informing them they’ve been prosecuted; they have 21 days to respond. If the defendant pleads not guilty or asks for a court hearing, the case goes to an open court.

If they plead guilty without asking for a court hearing or don’t respond, a single magistrate handles the case, advised by a lawyer. All they have to guide their decision is the information sent by the prosecution and a pre-printed form with small boxes for the defendant to explain their defence or mitigating circumstances, attached to their original plea letter.

Since 2015, the use of SJP has skyrocketed – there were 732,288 prosecutions in 2022, making up well over half of all annual criminal prosecutions. Though the most serious forms of truancy that could carry custodial sentences are not handled under SJP, thousands of those SJP cases in 2022 were parents being prosecuted for their child’s non-attendance.

But government data suggests something is wrong. Only one-third of all SJP defendants, and fewer than one in five truancy defendants, actually enter a guilty or not guilty plea. While part of that could be defendants choosing not to respond, others could be more like Fitzsimmons’ situation, where errors mean his chance of a fair trial was lost.

“We've got families who don't even know that they’ve been prosecuted. Families who open a letter to be told their case has been through the system, they’ve lost and have to pay £900 in costs and fines and have been put on community service,” Costello explains.

There were also concerns the system fails to properly check if defendants have extenuating circumstances whereby prosecution would not be in the public interest.

“You can’t really judge whether something is in the public interest unless you know whether the person you’re accusing is vulnerable and their wider circumstances,” says Penelope Gibbs, of the campaign group Transform Justice. “But with these SJP prosecutions, they just press a button, and they don’t have that information.”

There are other issues, too.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that, if you look at the averages, some cases were dealt with in 50 seconds,” says Tristan Kirk, courts correspondent for the Evening Standard. “Obviously that gives you no time to read witness statements. And even if a case takes a couple of minutes, did they really sit down and look at the witness statements?”

In 2021, a magistrate in Battersea’s Lavender Hill convicted and sentenced 204 defendants for driving offences within 55 minutes – an average of 16 seconds per case.

Just in the last few months, Kirk has documented children being unlawfully handed criminal convictions in SJP prosecutions; a woman with a learning difficulty that impeded her ability to pay her TV licence and respond to the prosecution notice getting convicted; and a pensioner with dementia who was fined for not having car insurance as she lay in a care home bed.

“It’s remarkable how often, without necessarily trying too hard, I come across things going wrong or being overlooked, and each one of those cases is an individual person,” Kirk says. “It’s a dramatic lessening of the legal checks that exist in a normal court hearing. By introducing this system we’ve reduced the standard and the quality of justice.”

So, what is the view from Westminster? Labour’s shadow courts minister Alex Cunningham tells The House: “It’s not realistic to think we would get to a position where everyone gets a court date for motoring offences or not paying a television licence. But while the single justice procedure is a very useful tool within the justice system, there are flaws, which can lead to miscarriages of justice.”

By introducing this system we’ve reduced the standard and the quality of justice

That’s something Kerry Beak knows only too well. “As my daughter has grown up, she's never missed a day of school, until she reached secondary school,” the Hertfordshire-based mum tells me. “That’s when she started to develop really bad migraines. They’re quite debilitating. The minute they hit, often her vision goes blurry and she throws up, and it can be like that for up to three days.”

Beak adds: “It’s the case with her school that, when she’s off [due to the illness], it just goes down that she’s not attending. We’ve asked [the school] for help, whether there could be days where she could do lessons from home, but they’re not very helpful at all."

Last year, Beak got a letter telling her she had been prosecuted for her daughter’s lack of attendance. It came out of the blue.

Beak says she ended up paying the £120 fine, to avoid the risk of facing a worse fine or a criminal record, even though her daughter’s non-attendance should have been allowed on medical grounds.

To avoid the risk of another fine, she says the family are increasingly forced to send their daughter in to school on days she’s suffering from a migraine, knowing she will return home a few hours later, just so it goes down as an authorised absence.

The whole experience has forced Beak to leave her full-time job as a dental nurse to look after her daughter, and left her on anxiety medication, dreading the next message from the school.


“Her attendance has recently dropped to 68 per cent and now there’s this worry of, are we going to get another fine or end up going to court?” Beak tells me. “It’s all out of our hands.”

The solutions to these problems vary depending on who you ask. Labour’s Cunningham, for example, said simple improvements like changes to the letters sent out by prosecutors could increase the number of defendants who actually enter pleas.

Others suggest publishing more information online and ensuring proper legal consideration and oversight in SJP trials. There’s also an argument for removing certain situations from criminal prosecution altogether. “Some of the things that are put through the single justice procedure shouldn’t actually be criminal offences, like not paying your TV licence... or your child not attending school,” says Gibbs of Transform Justice.

But for others, the problem lies in the fact parents face criminal prosecution for their child’s non-attendance at school.

“The children’s commissioner has launched 100 per cent attendance as an ambition, but what workplace will have 100 per cent attendance?” Costello asks. “There’s children, for example, with chronic illness who will just not be able to do that.”

And for all the campaigning and the miscarriages of justice, the view from the Department for Education seems very different. Just last month, the government announced that fines for children in England missing school are to rise by 33 per cent.

“If my son doesn’t go in to school tomorrow,” Fitzsimmons tells me, “I’m in court because I’m legally responsible for him. But I’m not legally responsible for him if he kills somebody. Where’s the justice in that?”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson stressed that defendants can push to have proceedings restarted if they aren’t aware of the case, and that prosecutors are able (though not compelled) to review mitigation and submitted defences, and choose to withdraw cases.

“Only uncontested and non-imprisonable offences are dealt with under the single justice procedure,” they add. “Magistrates are always assisted by a legally qualified adviser, and defendants can choose to go to court if they want to. Sentencing decisions are made by the independent judiciary who consider the facts of each case including any mitigating circumstances.”

The Department for Education did not respond to a request for comment.

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