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Senate Panel Backs Legal-Fees Bill

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Washington--A Senate panel last week approved legislation that would allow parents to receive legal fees in special-education cases.

The bill, S 415, sponsored by Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Republican of Connecticut, would allow parents to receive lawyers' fees if they prevail in cases brought under P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. (See Education Week, May 22, 1985.)

Although the legislation was passed unanimously by the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped, of which Senator Weicker is chairman, several issues remain to be resolved before full committee markup, Congressional aides said.

Some of the issues to be addressed include objections by the Education Department to allowing reimbursement of legal fees at the administrative level, as well as opposition by Republican members of the subcommittee to certain provisions of the bill.

Limit Scope, Amount

Senator Don Nickles, Republican of Oklahoma, and Senator Strom Thurmmond, Republican of South Carolina, offered three amendments to revise the bill, all intended to limit the amount and scope of fees available to lawyers under the act.

The amendments, rejected by the subcommittee, would have limited court-ordered reimbursement of legal fees to a maximum of $75 an hour; required that parents and legal representatives exhaust all administrative remedies before bringing civil action in court; and prohibited the payment of such fees to lawyers employed by organizations that receive substantial federal financial assistance such as legal aid.

'Equitable Balance'

Senator Thurmond warned, "We must be careful to strike an equitable, fair balance respecting the rights of handicapped children, their parents, school boards, and local taxpayers who contribute toward school operating budgets."

However, the subcommittee passed an amendment, introduced by Senator Weicker, that would allow courts not only to order reimbursement of legal fees, but also "reasonable witness fees and other reasonable expenses."

The bill was fashioned in response to last year's Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Robinson, which declared that parents who win cases under P.L. 94-142 cannot receive legal fees. (See Education Week, March 20, 1985.)

Although disability-advocacy groups support the Senate bill and similar House legislation, the Education Department and a number of organizations, including the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators, oppose them.--at

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