High Court Rules Special Needs Parents Don't Need Lawyers in IDEA Suits

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parents of special needs children do not need to hire a lawyer to sue a school district over their children's special education needs.

Individuals usually have the right to represent themselves in court if they cannot afford a lawyer. But most courts have not let a parent of a child with special needs represent the child in cases filed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees all children a "free appropriate education."

Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, parents of a child with autism, could not agree with their Ohio school district on the educational program set out for their son, Jakob. They asked the district to pay for his $56,000 yearly enrollment in a private school that specializes in educating autistic children. After the school district refused, the Winkelmans sued under the IDEA. But because the parents could not afford to hire a lawyer, a federal appeals court ordered the case dismissed.

Lawyers for the Winkelmans argued before the Supreme Court that the IDEA covers both parents and children, so the parents are actually advocating for their own rights and should be allowed to proceed without a lawyer. The lawyer for the school district countered that the parents' rights were merely "derivative." He claimed the statute gave parents some "procedural" rights, but no "substantive" rights.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Winkelmans. Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said parents have legal rights under the IDEA. "They are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf," Kennedy said.

Neither of the Winkelmans is a lawyer. To pursue their case, Mr. Winkelman has taken a second job while his wife has done legal research and written her own court filings.

Several attorneys have offered to represent the family for free, Mrs. Winkelman said following the ruling. If that doesn'™t work out, she said, the family would proceed without an attorney.

"I would prefer to give Jacob the best chance with an attorney. That'™s the best-case scenario," she said. "I'™m very pleased. It restored a lot of faith I have in the system."

To read the full text of the Supreme Court's opinion in the case, Winkelman v. Parma City School District (U.S., No. 05-983, May 21, 2007), click here.

The document is in PDF format. If you do not have the free PDF reader installed on your computer, download it here.) Article Last Modified: 05/21/2007