SOMERSET Council has been fined £1,000 by regulators after a young girl with autism and “significant” mental health issues was denied the right support for months.

The current council and its predecessor Somerset County Council have been reprimanded on numerous recent occasions by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) over delays in ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have access to quality schooling.

Over the last 12 months, the ombudsman has served up several hefty fines on the councils to reflect their poor performance – including £2,000 in both October 2022 and March 2023, and £3,300 in August 2023.

The latest judgement against the council has seen it fined £1,000 after a young girl (known only as Y) was denied support after council officers failed to carry out the proper assessments of her needs.

The council has apologised to the child’s mother, known as Mrs X, and has promised to pay the full amount of compensation.

The ombudsman exists to investigate allegations of “maladministration” and “service failure” in the public sector – in other words, instances in which it is claimed councils have not fully carried out their legal duties to taxpayers.

Under UK law, it is not mandatory that any child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) must be provided with an education, health and care plan (EHCP).

However, any child which does have an EHCP must have this plan reviewed on at least an annual basis by the council, the parents and the school where the child is receiving education.

Mrs X first contacted Somerset County Council in January 2021, asking for an education, care and health needs assessment to be carried out on her daughter.

When the the council agreed in February 2021 to undertake this assessment, Mrs X asked whether this would include advice from both an occupational therapist and a speech and language therapist, in light of Y’s particular needs.

The council responded that it “did not routinely carry out such assessments” but that Mrs X could self-refer her daughter to a combined therapeutic service run by their local NHS trust.

Previous assessments of Y, which were carried out by both the NHS and private bodies in 2019, identified that Y had “clinically significant” mental health issues along with issues with sensory processing, language and communication.

These assessments also identified that Y had autism and may have additional deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – something which had already been diagnosed in Y’s brother.

Following a formal complaint by Mrs X in March 2021, the council stated in April 2021 that it would respond to any advice provided by the county’s NHS therapeutic services, but added that it was up to Y’s GP or other health professionals to determine what specialist assessments she needed.

It also notes that Y had been referred to Somerset’s children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in January 2021, but “did not meet its criteria for support”.

The council produces a first draft of Y’s EHCP in mid-May 2021, which went through numerous revisions over the summer as Mrs X pushed for additional provision for her daughter.

During this time, Mrs X commissioned additional reports from occupational therapists and speech and language therapists, funded out of her own pocket.

Y’s school requested additional funding from the council in January 2022 to help meet Y’s needs – a request that was granted in February 2022.

Mrs X formally complained to the ombudsman in March 2022, claiming that the council had not commissioned any further specialist assessments of her daughter, had not taken all existing professional advice into account, and had delayed issuing the final version of the EHCP.

The ombudsman was unable to formally investigate until the conclusion of the tribunal, at which Mrs X successfully secured changes to Y’s EHCP surrounding her schooling needs and the level of funding to provide this.

The ombudsman has ruled that the council was not under any formal obligation to seek specialist advice when assessing the needs of vulnerable children, but that it had not been “reasonable” in handling Mrs X’s requests.

The report found that the council should have considered relevant information from local NHS services and CAMHS, along with the privately commissioned assessments provided by Mrs X.

The report stated: “It was a fault that there is no record the council engaged with this evidence in making its decision.

“The failure to consider relevant evidence at the relevant time still casts a shadow over the council’s decision to refuse to obtain further advice.”

The ombudsman also found the council took 37 weeks to produce the final version of Y’s EHCP – far in excess of the target of 20 weeks set by the government, and that it still “fell short” of meeting Y’s needs even after all this time.

As a remedy, the council has been ordered to pay £1,000 in compensation – with £500 being in recognition of “uncertainty” from the council’s delays, and £500 being intended to mitigate the consequences of these delays.

The council was not asked to reimburse Mrs X for the assessments she had commissioned privately, but was ordered to provide additional training on this matter for all relevant staff by the end of 2023.

A spokesman for Somerset Council said: “In this case we have accepted the findings and apologised to the family for any distress caused to them.

“We recognise the impact for families who seek specialist advice because they do not believe that their request has been fully considered by the council.

“We have accepted the remedy actions in full – these will be delivered within the agreed time-scales.

“Our most recent feedback from Ofsted recognises the improvements we have made across children’s services, but we know there is more to do and are committed to learning from all complaints.”