On 6 April 2017, the Supreme Court gave judgment in Isle of Wight Council v Platt. The Court unanimously allowed the appeal brought by the Isle of Wight Council (“the Council”).
The case concerned the question of whether a parent who takes a child on holiday during term time commits an offence under s. 444(1) of the Education Act 1996, pursuant to which the parent is guilty of an offence if a child of compulsory school age “fails to attend regularly” at school.
Mr Platt was prosecuted when he refused to pay the £60 fine issued by the Council after his daughter missed seven days of school because of a family holiday to Disneyland. The Magistrates ruled that he had no case to answer because, even after the holiday, his daughter’s attendance had been 90.3% for the school year up to that point. The Council appealed by way of case stated to the Divisional Court, which upheld the approach of the Magistrates. The Council appealed to the Supreme Court.
Giving the unanimous judgment, Lady Hale agreed with the Council that “regularly” in s. 444(1) means “in accordance with the rules”.
Acknowledging that many people at first reading (including the Magistrates and Divisional Court in this case) might assume that “regularly” instead means “sufficiently frequently” Lady Hale set out why that is not the case. In particular, Lady Hale highlighted that attendance at school is compulsory (whereas a “regular” attender at the pub is not required to go). On Mr. Platt’s case the reason for the absence was irrelevant, such that “[t]aking a child to football or failing to get up in time to get the child to school would do, provided that it did not happen too often” . Further, Lady Hale found that it is clear from the drafting of s. 444 that the father’s interpretation is not correct (for example, it would create the anomaly that the same term-time holiday would be illegal if taken by a boarder, but lawful if taken by a day pupil).
Lady Hale explained that Mr Platt’s interpretation would give rise to problematic uncertainty. It was unclear how much attendance would be sufficient or what period should be measured, such that no parent could know in advance of removing a child from school whether that absence would constitute a criminal offence. Finally, Lady Hale noted that there are “very good policy reasons” why Mr. Platt’s interpretation is unacceptable, in particular because of the disruptive effect of unauthorised absences.
Lady Hale dismissed concerns that a single absence could lead to criminal liability, pointing out that it is not uncommon for a minor breach of the law to do so, such as when a person drives at 31 mph when the speed limit is 30. This concern is met by a sensible prosecution policy, such as (here) the ability to issue a fixed penalty notice, the payment of which discharges any liability to conviction.
The Supreme Court remitted Mr Platt’s case to the Magistrates.
The judgment is available here.
Martin Chamberlain QC and Emily MacKenzie represented the Isle of Wight Council, instructed by Sharpe Pritchard LLP.