The Sinnott Case

In his landmark High Court ruling this week, Mr Justice Barr said the difficulties encountered by a Cork woman, Mrs Kathryn Sinnott…

In his landmark High Court ruling this week, Mr Justice Barr said the difficulties encountered by a Cork woman, Mrs Kathryn Sinnott, in securing appropriate education for her autistic son were "symptomatic of a widespread malaise". It was a thoughtful and sensitive judgment. The Sinnotts were awarded £255,000 for the breach of their constitutional rights after the court found the State had failed to fulfil its obligation to provide free primary education.

There are clear practical implications for the Department of Education; many parents of the 1,200 autistic children in the State may now seek similar legal redress. But there are wider implications for policy makers. For generations, the most marginalised in the education sector - the disabled, the disadvantaged and those with learning difficulties - were forced to muddle through with scant recognition from the State. Parents, teachers, and often the students themselves, were left frustrated and exasperated by an educational system that made little provision for their special needs. The Sinnott judgment points to a better way for all such students in the new, more prosperous Ireland.

The manner in which the State treated Jamie Sinnott was negligent in the extreme. The court found that Mr Sinnott had received no more than two years of meaningful education in his 23 years - despite being diagnosed with autism in his first year. Mrs Sinnott said the special classes on offer to autistic children were "nothing more than baby-sitting services".

The Department of Education has not emerged with great credit from the ruling. The judge cited a litany of failures; to provide primary education; to provide the necessary ancillary services including speech, occupational and language therapy and healthcare and the failure to devise and operate an appropriate curriculum for Jamie Sinnott. But it may be that most of the blame should attach to the Department of Finance who, in the words of the ruling, "persistently dragged its feet " in recognising and implementing the obligations of the State towards the severely disabled. It would be good to hear the Department of Finance respond to this very trenchant criticism.


It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Task Force on Autism, established recently by the Minister for Education, Dr Woods, will herald a new era in the education of the severely disabled. At the very least, the Task Force must address the "insufficient liaison" between various government departments which, as the High Court noted, permeated the Jamie Sinnott case. There will also be a need for improved resources to allow for a much lower pupil/teacher ratio and for lifelong learning, if necessary.

It is clear from the commitments made by Dr Woods this week that there will be radical change in this area. But the State is only making up for lost time. It is what Mr Justice Barr called the "intelligent, selfless dedication and heroism of Mrs Sinnott" which has emerged with real credit.