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Court: state not compelled to educate man with autism

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

A test case in the Irish courts has drawn the attention of the nation to the issue of education rights for the mentally disabled.

The issue came to light when the High Court ruled that a 23-year-old autistic man, Jamie Sinnott, had had his constitutional rights breached because the government had failed to provide him with adequate education when he was growing up.

The suit, filed by Sinnott’s American-born mother, Kathryn, resulted in compensation awards of £225,000 to Sinnott, and £50,000 to his mother, thus agreeing that Jamie had rights that had not been fulfilled.

But the Irish government appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was "seeking clarification" as to exactly what were the state’s obligations in the area of education — the Supreme Court found in favor of the state, although it said that the Sinnotts would keep their compensation money.

Commentators in the media have speculated that the government’s appeal was less motivated by clarification than by a desire to stall and obfuscate the process — the Examiner newspaper has led the charge with headlines like "State says it has no further obligations to educate Jamie," and the Irish Times ran a headline, "How the State shafted the Sinnotts."

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The Sunday Business Post agrees, and attacks the government for its apparent attempts to duck its responsibilities. In particular, the Post said, there was a campaign to stop courts from having power to attack or adjust government policies.

The Supreme Court decided that age was the sole determinant in eligibility for primary education, and found the State’s constitutional obligation to provide for free primary education applies to children only, not adults, and ceases at the age of 18.

The High Court ruling had focused on the argument that the State’s obligation to provide for free primary education is based on need, not age.

Whatever the outcome, the issue has profound social and financial implications for Ireland. Many of this weekend’s commentaries and editorials focused on one cold, hard fact — the belief that the state was more concerned about the possibility of multimillion-pound class-action lawsuits being launched at the government, dating back to 1937, when the current Constitution was ratified, than it was about the needs and rights of mentally and physically disabled citizens.

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