Thoughts on the crossroads of law, politics and society – for when a tweet isn't enough. This blog contains general information and commentary on legal matters. It is not intended to provide legal advice. This blog discusses the law in England, unless otherwise stated.

Solicitors with expertise in disability and SEN cases

Updated 5 June 2020

I am often asked to recommend solicitors for SEN and disability cases. The following is a list of solicitors’ firms with whom I’ve worked and who I know have good expertise in SEN and disability issues. Most of these firms offer legal aid and will be able to advise disabled people and families about eligibility for public funding. Most can help with judicial review cases and most advise and represent people in the First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal (education appeals) and the Court of Protection (Mental Capacity Act cases). However not every firm does every type of case. If in doubt, check the website or call the new enquiries number for the firm to ask.

I have also added some firms at the end who do not offer legal aid but can be instructed privately by those who are able to pay. I understand that this will not be relevant to most disabled people or families but provide information about these firms to set out the widest possible range of options. Individuals who are not eligible for legal aid can also consider applying to the Rook Irwin Sweeney Social Justice Fund.

I am not formally recommending these firms – because I can’t, I only know their work from my perspective as a barrister at the other end of the telescope from the client. However from what I know, I would be confident that all these firms will offer a good quality service from staff who are committed to disability rights. The best recommendations will come from disabled people and families who have used solicitors as clients – so ask around if you are in need of legal advice.

Some of these firms have offices around the country, others have just one office. Where the firm has a particular regional focus I have noted this. However geographical location isn’t as important as the right expertise, particularly as so much work is done online these days. You should be able to find out about each firm from their website, including any restrictions on the areas they serve.

Importantly, the only firm (and charity) which hold the legal aid contract for appeals to SENDIST are Simpson Millar and Coram. To access legal aid for those firms for these issues you will need to go through the telephone gateway – 0345 345 4345. NB – only ‘legal help’ is funded for SENDIST (not representation) and the legal aid assessment is based on parental means. It is possible to make an application for ‘exceptional funding’ so that legal aid covers representation at SENDIST, which Coram did successfully in one of my recent cases.

If a firm isn’t on this list, it may be that I simply haven’t had the chance to work with them yet. Please post any recommendations for further firms in the comments section below.

As well as specialist solicitors, high quality advice is available from organisations such as IPSEA and SOS!SEN, from the Contact helpline and from impairment-specific organisations like the National Autistic Society. Families across the country can also access advice and support from their local Independent Advice and Support Service (IASS) (link is to a very helpful map on the Council for Disabled Children website which has contact details for the IASS in every council). However it is important to keep in mind that for cases which need to go to the High Court via an application for judicial review a legal aid solicitor will be required, unless private funding is available or the claimant(s) are able to crowdfunding, for example by using CrowdJustice.

Final point – the list is in alphabetical order to avoid any accusations of favouritism by the firms I work with!

Legal aid solicitors with expertise in SEN and disability cases

Firms without legal aid contracts

Why parents can make decisions for young people under the SEND reforms

Continuing the theme of ‘things that are really legally complicated under the SEND reform programme’, it’s high time I wrote about the interesting and in my view controversial provisions governing decision-making for young people aged 16-25

Quick recap on the general rule. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 applies to everyone aged 16 and over – with very limited exceptions in relation to 16- and 17-year-olds (no Lasting Powers of Attorney, no advance decisions to refuse treatment being the two key differences pre-18). So in general, once a young person turns 16 they are presumed to be able to make their own decisions. If this isn’t the case, then the presumption needs to be rebutted in relation to each decision they have to take. The MCA Code of Practice has a good chapter (Chapter 12) on how this works for 16- and 17-year-olds.

This can come as quite a shock to parents of disabled children, who will routinely take decisions on their behalf where the child cannot decide for themselves until their 16th birthday – when there is of course no magical change in the child’s abilities or needs. Sadly, the MCA 2005 is too often misused by public officials to exclude families from decision making once young people fall under its remit – something we want to change in #LBBill.

Perhaps with this problem in mind, the legal scheme under the Children and Families Act 2014 (CFA) modifies the approach to decision-making for young people under this Act. Section 80 of the CFA allows for regulations to be made which allow statutory provisions to be modified where a young person (or indeed a parent) lacks capacity to make relevant decisions. The regulations which do this are in Part 6 of the SEN and Disability Regulations 2014.

Regulation 64 requires that where a young person lacks capacity to make a decision under Part 3 of the CFA (i.e. a decision in relation to their education or a related health or care decision) then the right to make that decision rests with an ‘alternative person’, either alone or jointly with the young person. The phrase ‘alternative person’ is then defined as meaning either a formal representative under the MCA (Deputy or Attorney) or, if none exists, the young person’s parent.

It is extremely rare for disabled young people to have a formal MCA representative, and where they do it will often be their parent. This means that in the vast majority of cases the new scheme will allow parents of disabled young people to continue to take decisions about their education, health and care up to the age of 25.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is plainly positive that public bodies will not be able to simply cut families out of the decision making process for disabled young people. But on the other, I can’t see any principled reason why this approach should apply only to decisions made under the CFA. Not only does this potentially undermine the autonomy of young disabled adults, it also seems to me to be discriminatory – what about health and care decisions for young people which are not made under the CFA, i.e. for young people who do not meet the threshold for an EHC Plan?

Annex 1 of the new SEN Code of Practice gives brief guidance on how mental capacity issues are to be dealt with in the new scheme. The annex makes the position clear; ‘In the case of a young person [who lacks capacity to make a decision] who does not have [an MCA] representative, the decision will be taken by the young person’s parent’. Importantly, the Annex does go on to emphasise that ‘However, it is important that people are helped to make decisions themselves wherever possible’ – a key principle under the MCA.

Thoughts on these important provisions both in principle and practice most welcome below.

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