rightsinreality

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.

Tag: Human Rights

It’s not funny, to cut SEND money

I have shamelessly stolen the title for this blog post from Milo, a young man involved in the successful campaigning on SEN cuts in Hackney. Milo chose a donation from me to the fund to help save the Kids playground in Hackney as the price of this theft. Milo explained why as follows: ‘I am choosing the Kids adventure playground because I like it and it’s really cool to play in because disabled children can play there with their brothers and sisters.’ Please support the playground if you can.

So local authorities across England have now set their budgets for 2018-19 or will do so in the coming weeks. Some have taken every possible step to protect the services that matter to disabled children, young people and their families. Others, not so much. This blog post highlights some points of interest for all concerned with saving these vital services and challenging cuts.

First, I’m taking part in a webinar with Contact and Alex Rook from  Irwin Mitchell solicitors on ‘Using the law to challenge cuts’. The webinar is now fully subscribed but will be available to view through Contact online after the event – details tbc. If you can’t attend the webinar but have questions for us please either leave comments here or tweet me (@stevebroach). There is also very helpful advance reading in a guest blog from Alex’s colleague Mathieu Culverhouse dealing with the practicalities of using the law to challenge cuts.

Alex was the solicitor for the amazing families in #NascotLawnJR. In the unlikely event that there is anyone reading this blog who doesn’t already know, this case involved a number of families whose children have complex health needs who came together and fought the decision by their Clinical Commissioning Group (the local NHS) to pull funding for an overnight short break centre. The CCG’s funding decision has now been held unlawful and quashed by the court not once, but twice.

The outcome of Nascot Lawn is powerful evidence that judicial review can achieve real benefits for disabled children, young people and families – ensuring cuts cannot be made unless and until a lawful process has been adopted. It is important to emphasise that even ‘process’ challenges – for example concerning a failure to consult lawfully or to discharge the ‘public sector equality duty’ – can have real and lasting benefits. Where a cut is quashed because it was adopted following an unlawful process it routinely happens that the public body do not remake the decision but instead find the necessary savings another way. This is supported by excellent research from the Public Law Project which found that ‘Claimants for JR gained a wide range of tangible benefits: the most common of which were conferment or retention of a service by a public body…’.

However in relation to the coming round of cuts it may well be possible to go beyond the typical ‘process’ challenges in judicial review. In fact Nascot Lawn itself was more than a ‘process’ challenge – the CCG’s funding decision was held to be unlawful in substance as the CCG had failed to appreciate that Nascot Lawn was a ‘health service’ under the NHS Act. As this blog post explains, services for disabled children, young people and families are supported by a range of ‘specific’, ‘sufficiency; and ‘due regard’ duties. It may well be that some of the proposed cuts are unlawful in substance because they will result in the local authority (or CCG) breaching one or more of these duties. This will not then just be a question of the decision being quashed and the local authority or CCG being required to think again – if any of these kinds of challenges succeed then the cut would not be able to be made at , or at least not in the form held to be unlawful by the court.

Of course local challenges will only be able to do so much in the current context. Local authorities cannot magic up sufficient money to replace the central government funds they have lost. This is why campaigning efforts towards central government such as this petition by the Disabled Children’s Partnership are so important. It is only through work like this that we can move away from making sure that cuts are lawful to a focus on the kind of investment and expansion in services and support that families really need to see.

A final point – I wanted to emphasise that cuts are a human rights issue. The ‘socio-economic’ rights under the UN Conventions on children’s rights and disabled people’s rights all require ‘progressive realisation’ – as the Disability Convention states (Article 4(2)), the government has undertaken to ‘take measures to the maximum of its available resources…with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of these rights’. In simple terms that there should be ongoing progress towards achieving the rights to education, health, independent living and so on for disabled children and young people. This is why the UN Committee, in its General Comment on the right to education, states that ‘any deliberately retrogressive measures’ on education funding ‘must not disproportionately target learners with disabilities at any level of education’. In my view the same must hold true for health, social care and all other areas of public life which matter to disabled children and young people (i.e. everything).

If this post leads you to want to consider challenging cuts in your area, you may want to contact a specialist solicitor – and you will need to move quickly, as if funding is to be restored a judicial review would need to be heard within a matter of weeks if at all possible.

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Guest blog – using the law to challenge cuts – Mathieu Culverhouse, Irwin Mitchell solicitors

I’m very pleased to have a guest post on rightsinreality from Mathieu Culverhouse at Irwin Mitchell solicitors, one of the leading public law solicitors involved in challenges against cuts. I’ve written a number of times on the blog about the law that can be used to challenge cuts. I asked Mathieu to focus on a related issue – the practicalities of how to bring such cases to court. The questions were sourced on social media, with thanks to all those who responded. Over to Mathieu…

1.Parents who know their children’s rights can contest individual decisions at Tribunal, but what collective options are available to contest cuts?

Challenges to cuts are generally brought as applications for judicial review. Whilst ‘group actions’ are common in the US, and increasingly in the UK in relation to consumer and personal injury claims, for practical reasons they have not to date been used to bring legal challenges to cuts.

The main practical reason for this is that, with the availability of legal aid for individuals, and the advent of crowd funding (see further below), it is far simpler and easier for an individual, or a small number of individuals, to bring a cuts challenge.

However, collective action still plays an important part in bringing cuts challenges to court.  Having an organised campaign group from an early stage can be extremely helpful in identifying a suitable individual or individuals to act as claimants in an application for judicial review.  The campaign group can also assist in gathering witness evidence from others, in addition to the claimants, who are affected by the decision.  And of course, where a claim is being paid for through crowd funding, an active campaign group is vital for raising awareness and funds.

2. When is the right time to try to bring legal challenges to cuts?

The sooner the better.  A claim for judicial review must be brought promptly and not later than three months after the grounds for the claim first arose. The need for a claim to be brought ‘promptly’ can mean that where a case involves a challenge to a particularly significant decision (for example a challenge to a council’s budget), a court might still say that a claim has been left too late even if it is issued within three months.

It is therefore vital to start the process of seeking expert legal advice as soon as possible.  A solicitor will be able to help you identify the decision which needs to be challenged, the date of that decision, and whether there are good legal grounds to challenge it.

It may be that your solicitor will advise that it is too soon to bring a judicial review challenge (for example if a final decision on the issue has yet to be made), and that you need to wait before bringing a formal challenge. But this is a complex and technical area of law, and it is therefore crucial to get specialist advice from the outset, rather than risk missing the opportunity to bring a challenge by leaving it too late

3. What does being a ‘claimant’ in a cuts challenge actually involve?

The ‘claimant’ in a cuts challenge is the person who is bringing the claim, and will usually be someone who uses the service which is being cut.

In order to bring a challenge the claimant will need to instruct lawyers (often funded by legal aid – see below), who will then prepare the necessary paperwork for the court.

Where the service user is a child or an adult who does not have the mental capacity to instruct lawyers, a ‘litigation friend’ can instruct the lawyers on their behalf.  This could be a family member, a carer, a friend or any other suitable person. Legal aid can still often be obtained for the child or adult who actually uses the service.

Once the claimant has instructed lawyers, the lawyers will do the vast majority of the work involved in bringing the case to court.  Depending on the type of case, the lawyers might need the claimant to provide documents (such as letters, emails or care assessments), and the lawyers are also likely to want to take a statement from the claimant or the litigation friend.  Again, the work of taking a statement will be carried out by the lawyer.

Although the claimant will usually provide a written statement to the court, it is extremely unlikely that the claimant will be required to speak in court.  These kinds of cases are usually very dry, technical affairs, and all the talking in court is done by lawyers rather than witnesses.

This kind of case is nearly always held in public, which means that supporters of your case are able to attend the hearing.  This can often be helpful, to show the judge the strength of public feeling about the issue. However, if a large number of people are expected to attend, it will usually be a good idea to let the court know in advance so that they can make any necessary arrangements (e.g. holding the hearing in a big enough court room).

Some claimants might find that the idea of attending court is too much for them, or they may simply be unable to because of the nature of their disability.  Whilst it is always good to have the claimant in court for the hearing, it is equally fine if they are unable to attend, and the court will be sympathetic and understanding about this.

If a claimant is particularly vulnerable, for example in the case of a child or an adult who lacks the mental capacity to instruct lawyers, the court can be asked to make an order for anonymity, meaning that the claimant’s name will not appear in the published court papers and cannot be reported in the media. This request will usually be accepted although it is not guaranteed – but the issue of anonymity can be resolved before any public hearing so the claimant does not have to proceed if anonymity is refused.

4. Can you still get legal aid to challenge cuts?

Shout it from the rooftops – legal aid is still available to challenge cuts.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that legal aid has been abolished altogether, but that is not the case.  Although legal aid has been restricted (or removed altogether) for a number of areas of law, it is still available for ‘community care’ and ‘public law’ challenges, which in practice means that it is available to challenge cuts to public services.

Legal aid for these cases is means tested, but it is important to understand that where there is a potential court challenge, the means test is based on the service user’s means (whether that is a child or an adult) and not their parents’ or carers’ means.  The means test for legal aid is complicated, but in general terms people whose only income is from state benefits, or who are otherwise on a low income, and who have limited capital, will usually qualify. Specialist solicitors will be able to advise on the detailed requirements of the legal aid system.

 And, whilst in recent years the number of lawyers working in legal aid has reduced significantly, there remains a small but dedicated community of solicitors and barristers working in this field.  See here for a non-exhaustive list of specialist solicitors. 

5. How can you fund a cuts challenge if you can’t get legal aid?

In recent years more and more people have turned to crowd funding in order to bring legal challenges.  A number of online platforms have been set up to assist with this, the most popular of which is currently CrowdJustice.

By launching a crowd funding campaign, donations can be sought from the community affected by the decision under challenge, as well as from members of the general public who wish to support the cause.

If you cannot get legal aid, and you do not wish to pursue crowd funding, the options for funding a challenge are unfortunately limited.  Because of the particular rules which apply to judicial review cases, it is very rare for these cases to be run on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis.

One option is of course funding the challenge privately from your own resources, but challenges of this kind are very expensive and so this is unlikely to be a realistic option for most people.  Another option is to find lawyers who will agree to act ‘pro bono’ (ie free of charge). However even then the problem is that the usual costs rules apply to judicial review, so it is likely that an unsuccessful claimant will have to pay the public body’s legal costs. One of the key benefits of legal aid is that it comes with pretty effective ‘costs protection’ from the other side’s costs, meaning that usually legally aided claimants have to pay nothing towards the costs of the claim. A ‘protective costs order’ can be sought for non-legally aided claimants, limiting their exposure to costs, but the rules around these orders are complex and specialist advice will be needed.

6. What actually happens if you win a cuts judicial review? Do they have to reinstate the funding?

It is important to understand that in a claim for judicial review, the court will generally look at whether the way in which the decision was made was lawful or not.  If it is found to be unlawful, the court is likely to make an order ‘quashing’ the decision in question.  This means that the decision is effectively cancelled and the situation restored to that before the decision was made.  If the decision being challenged was one to cut funding, this of course means that the cut will not be implemented, at least for the time being.

Whilst it is open to the public authority to go away and try to make the same decision again but in a way that is lawful, in many cases public authorities which have been on the losing end of judicial reviews have chosen not to attempt to re-make the decision under challenge.  This could be either because the court’s criticism of their decision has been so strong as to make it difficult for them to make the same decision lawfully, or because they have simply taken a strategic decision to drop the proposal under challenge and look at other options for saving money.

A good example of this is the 2011 challenge to Birmingham City Council’s decision to cut £51m from its budget for adult social care and to raise its threshold for eligibility for adult care.  After the judicial review succeeded and the decision was quashed by the High Court, the council decided not to pursue the budget cuts or the policy change any further.

7. How can parents use the law to challenge an LA’s decision only to provide services in accordance with their statutory duties?

With increased pressure on local authority budgets, many councils have indicated that they will soon only have enough money to meet their basic statutory duties (i.e. the services the law says they have to provide), and will therefore be unable to provide any “non-statutory” services.

However, even when a service is non-statutory, it may still be possible to challenge a decision to cut it if the public authority has not made its decision lawfully.

A challenge may be brought on the basis that no, or inadequate, consultation was carried out before the decision was made, or that the decision maker failed to take into account the impact of the decision on people with a ‘protected characteristic’, such as disability, in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

This means that, despite the pressure on local authority resources, they can still be held to account for decisions to cut non-statutory services. There is also often potential for argument as to whether services are really non-statutory. For example short breaks for disabled children are now a ‘statutory’ service under the Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011.

See also some of the key legal questions identified in one of Steve’s earlier blog posts.

 8. Where there is a ‘sufficiency duty’ in a particular area, how can families best gather evidence that a service (such as short breaks) is not in fact ‘sufficient’?

Much of the evidence in this kind of challenge will centre around what steps the local authority has taken to establish what the local need for the service is and to balance this need against the other demands on its resources.

However, families involved in such challenges can assist by recording in writing their own experiences of asking for, and being denied, the service in question.

For example, a family could keep a diary over the course of several months recording all the occasions on which they have asked for a short break and have been told that no space is available.  One such diary on its own may be enough to demonstrate the lack of sufficient provision, but of course the more families that are able to provide this kind of evidence, the more powerful it will be.

9. Are there any other key points you want to make about the practicalities of using the law to challenge cuts?

We are lucky to live in a country where the law allows individuals to hold public bodies to account through the courts.  But the law is only any use if it is enforced, and all too often public authorities are able to get away with making unlawful decisions without being challenged.

This is why it is vital that bad decisions made by public authorities are challenged.  If bad decisions go unchallenged, this will only encourage bad practice and breed more bad decisions.  It is only by holding public authorities to account that we can make sure that the rule of law is upheld and our rights protected.

Mendip House – not ‘safeguarding’ failures but rights violations

This week I have been mostly cheering on families challenging the closure of an NHS short break unit in Hertfordshire, watching with a combination of awe and anger as George Julian live tweeted Richard Handley’s inquest* and feeling sickened and disgusted by the reports of the Safeguarding Adults Review of Mendip House, the former National Autistic Society (NAS) service in Somerset. Not the happiest week. This blog post is about the last of these three horror shows. The NAS position statement is here.

I’ve read lots of the commentary this week at the #MendipHouse hashtag on twitter. The most powerful comment for me was that by Neil Crowther: ‘When Panorama exposed Winterbourne View a human rights expert described the treatment filmed as ‘torture’. The treatment described here in a residential home run by [NAS] is also torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and must be labelled as such.’ Only judges and treaty bodies get to decide that human rights have been breached, but like Neil I struggle to see how the kind of treatment of the residents at Mendip House described in the Safeguarding Adults Review** can be anything other than inhuman and degrading – and thereby prohibited by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I also share the concern Neil expressed in a later tweet about the radio silence from the ‘mainstream’ human rights bodies on this issue – feeding the unfortunate impression that violations of disabled people’s rights are not ‘real’ human rights violations.

The only positive contribution I may have to the discussion is to flag section 73 of the Care Act 2014, which makes clear that voluntary and private sector providers of state-funded adult social care are now covered by the Human Rights Act 1998. This means that a resident of a private or voluntary sector care home (or a recipient of domiciliary care) can bring a claim that their human rights are being or have been violated in exactly the same way as if they were in a state-run institution (see below for more on ‘institutions’ in this context). Although the Care Act only applies to adult social care, in my view it is very likely that the courts would now take the same approach in relation to children’s social care and NHS-funded care for both children and adults, in order to avoid unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 ECHR. However until this is tested in court the position is unclear. Equally, until the first voluntary or private sector provider is successfully sued using section 73 of the Care Act, I’d imagine this very important extension of disabled people’s rights will continue to be little known and poorly understood.

A number of really important questions seem to me to arise from what happened at Mendip House. The first is whether charities should be running services at all. In my view the only justification for a national charity running services that can only benefit a handful of individuals is that these services act as an exemplar of what can be provided to all. As such my view is that every service run by a charity should have an ‘outstanding’ rating. Charities should sell off services rated only ‘good’ or below to the private sector or non-profit companies; if the service isn’t ‘outstanding’ it can’t be an exemplar. Of course what was going on at Mendip House was about as far from ‘outstanding’ care as it’s possible to get, as the NAS recognised by closing the service.

Secondly, should charities be running these kinds of services? Dr Oliver Lewis of Doughty Street Chambers and Leeds University published a powerful thread on twitter suggesting that ‘institutional’ care breaches Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on independent living and community inclusion. Oliver linked to the UN Committee’s General Comment on Article 19 from last year, which stated that assessments that disabled people were ‘unable’ to live outside institutional settings were ‘contrary to article 19’ and that independent living means ‘life settings outside institutions of all kinds’. While I would completely sign up to the programme of deinstitutionalisation called for by the UN Committee in its recent concluding observations on the UK, I’m not convinced that this means that there can be no charity-run residential care. Residential care provision can be (although admittedly rarely is) run wholly in keeping with the letter and spirit of Article 19, promoting genuine community inclusion. Equally I agree with Mark Neary that some of what passes for ‘independent living’ in this country is as alienating and segregating as the worst of residential care. What seems to me to be the greatest priority is ensuring that disabled people have ‘choices equal to others’ about where they live, in the language of Article 19. So (1) there ought to be a duty on local authorities to develop the widest possible range of community support services, and (2) local authorities and NHS bodies should be prevented from taking the cost of residential care into account when developing community support packages – precisely as we called for in #LBBill.

Thirdly, what’s the point of the big disability charities? On this one I am in complete agreement with Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, who tweeted the following: ‘I think if local and activist-led groups and larger charities with more capacity join forces around an issue, there’s more potential to achieve change than traditional Westminster/Whitehall public affairs and so-called “insider” influencing’. But the prerequisite for this must be that the big charities have ‘clean hands’ – the least of it being that if things go badly wrong there is a prompt, complete and up-front public apology.

I’ll end on by returning to an earlier theme – that abuse such as that uncovered at Mendip House needs to be part of the mainstream human rights discourse. There are brilliant disabled activists, family members, academics and lawyers speaking more and more publicly about disabled people’s human rights. They need the full support of the major human rights organisations to make sure abuse like this is not framed as merely a ‘safeguarding’ failure but as human rights violations.

*Help fund George’s work here: https://chuffed.org/project/richard-handleys-inquest

**See in particular table 1 on pp5-6 of the report which goes through blow by blow the allegations in relation to individual residents.

Time to fight the removal of children’s rights through the Children and Social Work Bill

There are bad ideas. There are really bad ideas. And then there’s clauses 29-33 of the Children and Social Work Bill 2016.

This handful of clauses, if approved by Parliament, will allow the Secretary of State to exempt local authorities in England from the requirements of children’s social care legislation in the guise of ‘test[ing] different ways of working’. At a stroke the Secretary of State could say that Durham doesn’t have to meet disabled children’s needs under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, Doncaster can forget about parent carers’ needs assessments or Dudley can ignore the duties owed to young carers. In the alternative, the Secretary of State could modify the way in which these requirements apply rather than exempt them entirely, just to increase the overall level of confusion.

I’m struggling to know where to start in explaining why this would be a bad idea. But here goes…This post is written from the perspective of the impact on disabled children, but similar concerns will apply across all children ‘in need’. For example, the clauses would seem to allow the Secretary of State to disapply every single requirement of the care planning regulations for looked-after children.

The law on support for disabled children, young people and families is already a mess. It derives from a patchwork of legislation enacted over the past decades, with duties and powers piled one on top of the other. The only saving grace is that it is the same mess everywhere – wherever a disabled child lives in England, their legal entitlements are the same.

If these clauses go through, even that saving grace will be lost. Rights and entitlements will vary across the country, depending on which exemptions or modifications the Secretary of State has granted to a particular local authority. This reduces rather than increases the transparency that is so badly needed if families are to enforce their rights.

What’s more, I simply do not understand why a local authority would need to be exempt from any of the baseline statutory duties governing support for disabled children in order to innovate or test different ways of working. The legislation governing children’s welfare creates a safety net which should never be removed or undermined in this way. Any specific amendments to the statutory scheme should require express and explicit Parliamentary approval, not the Secretary of State’s say-so.

All of the above is true at any time. However the statutory safety net is even more important at a time like this, when many local authorities feel constrained to cut services to the bone to balance their budgets.

The Bill comes back to the House of Lords for Report stage on 18 October – details of the Bill’s progress are on the excellent Parliament website. A coalition of individuals and organisations has come together to oppose these clauses under the banner of Together for Children. Please sign up to show your support – and please see this excellent article from Sara Ogilvie from Liberty for some of the wider concerns.

Hopefully the Lords will ensure that clauses 29-33 are removed from the Bill. However if they do not and they reach the statute book, it seems to me that there is a real issue here under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given that disabled adults will continue to have the benefit of coherent legislation in the form of the Care Act 2014 whereas the patchwork of disabled children’s law will simply acquire more holes. It is very hard to see how this differential treatment can be justified, given that the needs of a 17 year old disabled child will be very similar to those of that young adult at 19.

Final point – all this shows how urgently we need the Law Commission to review children’s social care law

Why now is the time to engage with the next round of cuts

Two news stories that have popped up on my feed this morning highlight that now is the time for campaigners and local groups to start engaging with the next round of local cuts, for the financial year April 17-March 18.

Firstly, Essex is apparently consulting on potential cuts to children’s centres.

Secondly, Dorset is said to be considering a range of cuts to adult social care.

I have no doubt there are or will be similar stories across the country in the local media this week or in the near future. Local authority budgets are complex and require significant preparatory work followed by consultation and debate by members. So in order to have the budget ready to be approved next March, work on proposed cuts must be under way in every area.

But aren’t these cuts inevitable? Well, in short, no. There is no doubt that local authorities will be forced to cut services given the ongoing reductions in funding from central government. But the specific cuts they make must be made lawfully, taking into account all the relevant statutory duties. The recent West Berkshire short breaks judgment makes this clear.

There are still choices to be made by councils – not just between which services to cut but also (for example) what level of reserves to hold and where to fix the council tax. All these choices are hard but they are choices nonetheless.
So campaigners and local groups concerned about potential cuts to valued services need to start engaging with their council’s proposals now. I’d suggest:

  • Keeping a close eye on local papers, TV and radio. Proposed cuts often generate local media interest.
  • Check the council’s website. All formal consultations (including the overall budget consultation) should be easily available online. Check the agenda and minutes of Cabinet and Council meetings for early warning of proposed cuts.
  • Make sure you work together, including if possible identifying people in the group with the skills and expertise to understand the financial proposals so you can ask the right questions.

I’ve set out some of the key legal questions campaigners and local groups may want to ask in an earlier post. I hope that post shows the wide range of legal duties with which local authorities must comply when making cuts.

New case law updates on disabled children’s rights

Quick post (first for some time) to flag the new case law updates published by the Council for Disabled Children with its Summer Digest. These will hopefully be of interest to disabled young people, families and professionals.

The first covers two Upper Tribunal appeals brought by Hillingdon and Buckinghamshire. Both appeals considered the appeal rights for young people (aged 16-25) and the approach to be taken where a young person lacks capacity to bring their own appeal. The Buckinghamshire decision gives important guidance on the meaning of ‘education’ for young people.

The second is about another important Upper Tribunal decision (this time in an appeal by Staffordshire) which gives clarity about school transport entitlements for young people. It is important for young people and families to note the conclusion that the Tribunal cannot resolve disputes in relation to school transport and that the correct remedy is judicial review.

The third concerns a successful human rights claim against Kent in the context of care proceedings. The judgment suggests that serious failures to comply with the duties owed to disabled children under the Children Act 1989 may result in breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998, which may in turn lead to damages being awarded.

All three updates are themselves summarised in the main CDC Digest (see p14 onwards).

Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook – second edition now available

I’m thrilled / relieved to say that the second edition of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook is now available online.

Legal Action Group published the first edition in 2010. It is astonishing how much of the text has had to be rewritten some five years later. We have had a wholly new SEN scheme under the Children and Families Act 2014, major changes to social care for disabled young people and those in transition to adulthood under the Care Act 2014 and a massive reorganisation of the health service under the Health and Social Care Act 2012. All this change has basically made the first edition a museum piece.

As well as covering these headline Acts and the relevant regulations and guidance as best we can, we also have some fantastic new content for the second edition. Camilla Parker has produced the definitive guide to decision making and issues in relation to capacity and competence. Polly Sweeney has given us an incredibly useful resource by way of a chapter on all the forms of remedies available to disabled children, young people and families (as well as updating the Education chapter). Rebekah Carrier led on major improvements to the Housing chapter, including new content on how to help make sure families get a home which is suitable for their needs.

We also had the benefit of excellent input from Martha Spurrier who updated the Health chapter and Louise Price who updated the Equality and Non-Discrimination chapter.

The co-authors remain myself, Prof Luke Clements and Dr Janet Read. If (when) people discover we’ve got anything wrong, it’s our fault.

The law affecting disabled children, young people and families is excessively and unnecessarily complex. The complexity has been made worse by the new legislation, which sits on top of old law dating back at least until 1970. We have done our best to make the book as accessible as possible while accurately stating the law. We hope the extensive cross-referencing will help non-lawyers find their way around the text.

As with the first edition, all the chapters of the book will again be published online free of charge by the Council for Disabled Children – I’ll confirm when the downloads are available. I hope anyone who would print the whole thing out would consider buying the book instead (!)

Above all, I hope the book continues to make a contribution to ensuring that disabled children, young people and families get the services and support to which they are entitled by law.

Final thought – as I tweeted earlier, we are very proud to have part of the Justice Quilt on the cover (see image above). I hope anyone who buys the book will also sign up to show their support for the Justice for LB campaign as they continue to struggle to get justice from the system.

Challenging local cuts – some key legal questions

Following the political choices set out in the recent Spending Review, it would seem inevitable that local authorities are going to need to make cuts to important services next year, including those provided to children and disabled people. Recent Kings Fund analysis shows that the 2% precept on council tax is a totally inadequate solution to the funding crisis for adult social care. No-one seems to be talking about what the Spending Review means for children’s social care, which wasn’t even mentioned on the Department for Education press release – but it is unlikely to be good news.

The issue now is not whether there should be cuts, but whether the cuts which have to be made are lawful, both in terms of their effect on services and those who use them and the process by which the decisions were made. As Mr Justice Blake said in R (Rahman) v Birmingham City Council (para 46) in relation to the ‘public sector equality duty’ (PSED) found in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010:

Even where the context of decision making is financial resources in a tight budget, that does not excuse compliance with the PSEDs and indeed there is much to be said for the proposition that even in the straightened times the need for clear, well-informed decision making when assessing the impacts on less advantaged members of society is as great, if not greater.

In rather an Alice in Wonderland way, Parliament has continued to impose new duties on local authorities at the same time as central government has taken their funding away to comply with them. However this means that councils need to take the hard decisions that will be made in their budgets for 2016-17 and beyond with a crystal clear understanding of their legal obligations. Although there may come a time where a local authority is unable to set a budget which allows it to meet all its legal duties, I doubt we are there yet.

Councils are currently working up and consulting on their budgets for 2016-17, so now is the time when residents and local groups may want to ask some of these legal questions:

Will the council be able to meet all its ‘specific’ statutory duties owed to individual residents? For example:

  1. The duty to meet all ‘eligible’ needs for disabled adults and their carers under the Care Act 2014
  2. The duty to meet ‘eligible’ needs for disabled children under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970
  3. The duty to provide free suitable home to school travel arrangements for all ‘eligible’ disabled children under section 508B of the Education Act 1996
  4. The duty to secure special education provision in education, health and care plans for disabled children and young people in section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014
  5. The duty to provide advocacy to disabled people and carers during the care and support assessment and planning process under section 67 of the Care Act 2014.

Will the council be able to meet its ‘sufficiency’ duties to have a sufficient level of particular services to meet local needs? For example:

  1. Childcare, including childcare for disabled children up to the age of 18, under section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006
  2. Short breaks for disabled children under regulation 4 of the Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011
  3. Education and care services for disabled children, under section 27(2) of the Children and Families Act 2014
  4. Children’s centres, under section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006
  5. Services for disabled adults and their carers, under the ‘market shaping’ duty in section 5 of the Care Act 2014

Has the council had ‘due regard’ to the needs specified in the PSED (see above) – for example the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled people (children and adults)?

Will the proposed cuts give rise to unlawful discrimination between different groups, contrary either to the Equality Act 2010 or Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Has the council had regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under section 11 of the Children Act 2004?

Has the council treated children’s best interests as a primary consideration in its decision making, as required by Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?*

Has there been ‘fair’ consultation on the proposals? In particular (quotes are from the leading consultation case of ex parte Coughlan:

  1. Has consultation taken place at a ‘formative stage’, i.e. sufficiently early in the decision making to influence the outcome?
  2. Have consultees been provided with ‘sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit of intelligent consideration and response’ – i.e. do residents know what cuts are being proposed and why?
  3. Have consultees had ‘adequate time’ for consideration and response?
  4. Once the consultation has finished, has ‘the product of consultation’ been ‘conscientiously taken into account’ in the final decision.

Several of these legal principles – for example consultation, non-discrimination and the PSED – apply equally to NHS bodies such as clinical commissioning groups who may also be contemplating cuts to valued services.

If residents and local groups are not getting answers to these questions, or are unhappy with the answers coming back, then the next step may be to consult a specialist solicitor who can advise on whether there may be a challenge via judicial review. It is essential that any challenge to financial decision making is brought extremely promptly – so advice should be obtained before any final decision is made if possible, or otherwise straight after the decision.

It is also important to bear in mind that not all councils are equal – particularly given the increased focus on councils raising revenue from their own areas. Residents and local groups may want to ask questions about what level of reserves their particular council holds – particularly ‘free’ or unallocated reserves. Although spending reserves is obviously only a short term solution, it may be possible to use reserves to mitigate some of the cuts and help with transition to alternative forms of provision.

It is unlikely that legal challenge alone is going to be sufficient where cuts are proposed – there also needs to be political pressure. There are a number of guides for local groups on how to campaign, including campaigning against cuts or to save services. I really like this one from the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign.

Local politics will still come down to local priorities, although the choices will get harder than ever. In the light of the duties above, the law requires councils to give significant priority to services for children and disabled people. It is hoped that the decision by Hampshire not to cut its short breaks budget for 2016-17 is therefore one that other local authorities will follow to the extent they can.

*We can save detailed arguments about whether and why the UN CRC has to be followed when it is not directly incorporated into English law for any case that goes to court.

Talk to Housing and Support Alliance Independent Living conference

Absolutely cracking conference put on by the Housing and Support Alliance today. Real unity in the room that we need to fight for the right to independent living in these challenging times.

My slot was given the title ‘Rights are more important now than ever’. This is roughly what I said:

What’s the point of people with learning disabilities having legal rights? Some people (including I suspect some lawyers) don’t think that this area of law is ‘real law’. On this view, local authorities and NHS bodies should just be left to get on with providing whatever support they think they can afford, perhaps subject to inspections from official bodies to make sure things don’t get too bad.

But in the 21st century as a society we don’t think that’s good enough. Instead most of us sign up to a view that everyone, including disabled people, has fundamental rights that have to be respected.

We have these rights because we are human – that’s why they are called human rights. So when councils put disabled people in places where they are not free to leave and they are subject to continuous supervision and control (watched all the time), this is a deprivation of their liberty, the same as it would be for everyone else. It needs to be properly justified and approved by law to stop there being a breach of Article 5 of the ECHR, the right to liberty.

But we also recognise in the 21st century that if we just have one set of rights for everyone we won’t ensure that everyone’s rights are properly respected. So we reflect the fact that different groups have different needs and set out their rights – women, children and finally and most recently disabled people.

So Ian’s right* – we are part of the civil rights movement. And Gary’s right* – we need to save the Human Rights Act. I think it’s striking that two of the people fronting the Act for the Act campaign are Jan Sutton and Mark Neary. Jan is a disabled women who used the Human Rights Act to get a package of care which meant she could live with dignity. Mark, as I imagine everyone here knows, can speak to the power of the Human Rights Act in helping get his son Steven home. So the Human Rights Act is fundamental to realising disabled people’s human rights.

We now have the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the CRPD). This is our Bill of Rights. It is a full package of rights, which if respected in every case would mean true independent living and community inclusion for every disabled person. Although it is still not part of our law, in the same way that the European Convention on Human Rights is through the Human Rights Act, the courts are giving the CRPD ever greater weight – for example, in helping find unlawful discrimination against disabled children in hospital who lose their disability benefits after 84 days.

If people think about the CRPD, they generally think about Article 19 – described as the right to independent living. But Article 19 is actually headed ‘living independently and being included in the community’. And that’s what it’s about – real inclusion, meaning ordinary lives, and the kind of love and relationships Sara** was talking about.

And then we have the next set of rights, those given by Parliament in specific acts like the Care Act 2014. These rights can move around and change in the details, but the basics endure.

For example the right for disabled people to have their eligible social care needs met in full regardless of the cost carries on from the old scheme to the Care Act 2014. However – if there are two ways of genuinely meeting the person’s needs the state can meet needs in the most cost-effective way; we see straight away how disputes arise.

But the basics aren’t enough. So there’s a right to personal care – but what about as Sally and Laura*** say, when your personal care gets ‘done’ by someone you don’t know, who only has 15 minutes with you and doesn’t have the time to get to know you or show you respect. Is that rights-respecting care? Of course not – either under the Care Act or the Human Rights Act.

So rights are always ‘important’, in the sense that if the law requires something to be done it must be done. Law trumps everything – even (surprise surprise) local authority policies.

But why might it be thought that rights are more important now than ever? The answer is obvious; because disabled people are under sustained attack from government policies that cut the specific fund to support independent living, undermine entitlements to social security, reduce access to legal aid and make it virtually impossible for councils to comply with their statutory duties through reducing their budgets.

And if it’s hard for councils now, we know that after the next spending review later this month it will almost certainly get worse. The Local Government Association say that with the expected cuts there will be:

  • Legal challenges because councils aren’t meeting their Care Act duties
  • Less dignified care
  • More unmet need

So rights matter because they are a way of fighting back. They give content to our shouts where people are living impoverished non-lives, as Sara said. If there is a legal duty to provide – for example – the personal care a disabled person needs to lead a dignified life, then the state can be made to provide it.

Tom**** seems to be saying we have to accept the cuts. I say no – we have to enforce the law. Isn’t it interesting that Tom says – rightly – that where you live is going to make a massive difference to the support you get. But yet the law of England is the law of England…

Should people keep paying for their support with their freedom – definitely not? Should the number of people getting state support be reducing, as Tom showed? Definitely not – there has been no legal change that would allow this. Indeed councils aren’t allowed any more to have only care for ‘critical’ needs. If anything eligibility criteria should be getting more generous rather than reducing.

We can’t fund fewer people or give them less support because the law doesn’t allow it. Indeed there is an open question as to whether Elaine McDonald’s case would be decided differently now the Care Act is in force. Would the Care Act well-being duty allow for the provision of incontinence pads in cases such as this.

With respect to Tom, it shouldn’t be a choice between libraries and social care. There are duties to have both. If the government wants to change that, they need to ask Parliament to change the law.

Until they do, surely soon we will see legal challenges by local authorities on the basis they haven’t been given enough money to comply with their legal duties? Indeed we already have – two councils took the government to court to get more funding to implement the Care Act, and it seemed the government backed down and provided the funding once the court granted permission for the claim to proceed.

The legal route to achieve this is judicial review – and the essential point I want to make in this short talk is that legal aid is still available to bring judicial review challenges. If commissioners are becoming a ‘hard to reach group’, sending them a pre-action letter before a judicial review often gets their attention.

So what should disabled people, families and allies do if their rights aren’t being respected? There are lots of options – contact their MP, start a petition, chain themselves to the council railings. I’m not discounting any of these – but I would say that one of the first things to do is get specialist legal advice. If you search ‘rightsinreality solicitors’ you will get a list of some of the solicitors with disability expertise who have legal aid contracts and can advise disabled people and family members. There are issues about financial eligibility – having too much money to get legal aid – but it is always worth checking this out with a specialist solicitor, don’t just use the online calculator.

I’ve never known someone with a legal problem take advice too early, because a good solicitor will always say if there are other things to do than go to court. But I’ve known plenty of people take advice too late, when much of the damage caused when rights aren’t respected has already been done.

It’s also vital to remember that for every case that goes to court there will be a hundred if not hundreds that get set sorted out well before, with a better package of support.

At the same time we need to improve and strengthen the legal framework. That is the point of the #LBBill which has been crowdsourced by the incredible Justice for LB campaign, with disabled people, family members and allies across the country. It would:

  • make the right to independent living in Article 19 of the CRPD part of English law;
  • stop there being caps on the cost of care;
  • require the state to respect people’s wishes as to where they live;
  • ensure that there is enough community support available; and
  • sort out problems with the Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act.

Many of these ideas can be read in to the existing law – and we need to push back when people deny that these rights exist. It is vital, as Sally says, that we don’t pretend everything is ok.

But #LBBill would make everything clear and put the rights in one place. We will have another go at getting the Bill into Parliament when the ballot for private members’ bills happens next summer. We are also very encouraged that the Law Commission is considering some of our ideas in its new scheme for managing deprivations of liberty.

We are less encouraged by the Department’s recent response to the No right ignored consultation. Issuing guidance isn’t going to do the job.

I want to end on some striking research which was covered yesterday by the brilliant team at Community Care. It concerns the new right to advocacy under the Care Act 2014, which is absolutely essential if that Act is going to make any real difference to people’s lives. Yet we learn that advocacy referrals are ‘way below’ expected levels; Reading council expected to provide 4,000 hours of Care Act advocacy this year, yet six months in they’ve only provided 170 hours. And this is a council that says it is actively promoting the new right. So we have to keep pushing to make these rights real.

My final conclusion is this. It is unacceptable for Parliament to pass laws and the government to sign treaties creating new rights, and then for funding to be cut to make it impossible for local bodies to realise them. This is the challenge for the next few years – and I believe rising to that challenge means using the law to enforce the extensive rights disabled people now have. If we bring the cases to show the law isn’t being respected then the funding we need must follow – that’s what the rule of law requires.

If government wants to reduce support for disabled people they need to get Parliament to change the law and face the consequences at the next election. We can’t let them get away with doing it by stealth through ever increasing cuts to budgets.

*Ian Birrell and Gary Bourlet co-chaired the conference (brilliantly). Ian is a journalist and Gary is from People First England (and judging by the mood of the conference a future Labour leader)

** Dr Sara Ryan gave an earlier keynote talk challenging the term ‘independent living’ being applied to ‘state supported non-lives’

***Laura Broughton and Sally Warren from Paradigm gave an earlier talk challenging people not to pretend things are as good as they can be

**** Tom Noon, Chairman of Cordis Bright, spoke powerfully about the present realities in relation to both housing and support

No voice heard, all rights ignored?

The train to the Housing and Support Alliance annual conference on independent living and people with learning disabilities seems an appropriate time to set out some thoughts on the Government’s response to the No voice unheard, no right ignored green paper.

‘Not best pleased’ would be one way to summarise the reaction from ‘stakeholders’ (ugh) to the response. Another way would involve plenty of expletives. The title of this post, without the question mark, was the pithy summary from @socialworkops on Twitter.

To understand the frustration it’s important to remember the context for the Green Paper. The former Minister, Norman Lamb MP, had reached a view that all the concordats and agreements in the world were not going to be enough and that legislation was required to give new hard-edged legal rights. There was plenty of room to debate what those rights should be (I had my tuppence here) but the principle seemed clear – new legislation was needed.

However after the General Election Mr Lamb was no longer Minister and the new government seems rather less enthusiastic about legislating in this area. The response was delayed and when it finally arrived it could be summarised (fairly?) as ‘issue some guidance and kick the rest into the long grass’. Or in the language of the consultation, the proposals ‘should be seen as part of an ongoing and evolving dialogue’ (p6, para 7). Let us know when you’re ready to stop talking and actually do something.

Another part of the frustration, as Rob Grieg puts very well here, is that we’ve had very good strategies and guidance for learning disability for years in the form of Valuing People and Valuing People Now. We don’t need another strategy or more guidance, we need some real action to deliver these shared goals.

So does the response meet the two tests in its title? In terms of voices heard, Chris Hatton has done some excellent comparisons between the Valuing People Now consultation and this consultation. Chris shows that the Department has heard from far fewer disabled people this time round – which is unacceptable as government should be getting better over time at engaging with the people their policies affect, not worse. As Chris says, when properly analysed ‘The numbers of people responding to the NVUNRI consultation start to look perilously small’.

And on the second test – well, it’s pretty clear that the Minister’s vision of new hard-edged rights has been ignored. In legal terms, guidance can be very important. It all depends on its legal force – some guidance must be followed by decision makers in the absence of a considered decision that there is good reason not to do so, other guidance (‘have regard’ guidance) is just something that decision makers must take into account.

However it’s surprising (to put it mildly) that the Department doesn’t appear to know yet which laws it will use to issue the guidance here. See para 8, p6; ‘we will rapidly determine the most appropriate powers under which to act to have the best and strongest effect’. Again, let us know when you’ve made your mind up.

So whether the guidance is likely to be legally important depends on what the Department eventually decide in relation to the powers they will use to issue it. But what about its practical effect? Experience suggests that the likely fate of more guidance is to end up on more shelves. I’m not saying for a moment that if Parliament passes new laws they are automatically followed (hello, Care Act 2014) but the chances of cultural change must be must higher when there is new primarily legislation, not merely further guidance. Surely? Please let this be true or we are wasting a lot of money on those MPs…

Also, guidance cannot create new legal rights and duties – it can only reflect existing law. So if (as we are told at p14, para 41) there was ‘strong support for proposals about NHS commissioners sharing duties to promote individual wellbeing in the Care Act 2104 with local authorities’, why not get on and legislate for this now?

It is also concerning that even phase 1 of the proposals (which includes the new guidance) will take place ‘during the current financial year (2015/16) and into 2016/17’ (p9, para 15). So we may have to wait quite a while even to see the guidance. The grass for the guidance may not be long, but it could certainly use a trim.

There are some more interesting ideas in phase 2, including the named social worker proposal (*cough* funding *cough*) and the idea of extending Care and Treatment Review principles to local authority-led placements. However there is no timeframe for this phase. We are told at para 16, p9 that ‘This phase will involve further consultation with stakeholders, with any resulting legislation to be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows’. So not only will there be more consultation (why?), but the real mischief here is that there is no legislative slot allocated for any Bill in the Parliamentary timetable. Doesn’t look from this like there is any chance of new legislation until the end of next year at the earliest – hope I’m wrong.

Phase 3 is described as ‘more radical solutions’, however the summary only lists two:

  • ‘monitor implementation of the new service model for commissioners of health and social care services, and of CTRs on care planning, admissions, transfers and discharges and consider the need for further legislative proposals in response to review of impact’. I’ve read this three times and I’m still not sure I understand what it means.
  • ‘further consideration in principle of whether and how the Mental Health Act should apply to people with learning disabilities and/or autism and if this remains appropriate’. I know this is a controversial issue but surely the point of the Green Paper consultation was to allow the Department to reach a view on the principle here, subject to further consultation on the detail? As I read this it essentially means ‘no change’. Note also (p21, para 81) that ‘some stakeholders, especially individuals, their families and supporters, and the voluntary and community sector were keen on the principle that some sort of change was needed’ (emphasis added). No voice unheard?

So that’s the government response. I’d contrast it to the coherent package of new rights that we have set out in the second draft of #LBBill, with input from a wide range of disabled people, families, professionals and allies. Of course a key difference is that #LBBill is trying to improve the legal framework so disabled people can realise their right to independent living and community inclusion generally, and the Green Paper response is trying to fix one part of the problem for one specific group of disabled people (supposedly ‘the people who need most help’, see the response at p12, para 31). Even if I fundamentally disagree with the second approach, it is still terrible to see the opportunity to strengthen the rights of this group lost.

Two slivers of light:

  1. New guidance won’t necessarily be useless. It all depends what it says and even more importantly what statutory force it has. Let’s hope it is strong and clear guidance with the greatest possible legal force.
  2. The Law Commission are working up proposals for a new scheme to replace the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards which may yet result in legislation that contains some of the #LBBill ideas. Given the Department’s response, there’s now a huge amount riding on the Law Commission’s draft Bill due in 2016.

Other than that, looks like it’s back to the private members’ bill ballot for #LBBill in summer 2016.

I can’t let this piece end without highlighting something said in the Minister’s foreword to the response (p4). Towards the end of his piece, the Minister (Alistair Burt MP) says; ‘As a country, a key measure of our success will be how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable in our communities’. There are so many things wrong with this sentence it’s hard to know where to begin – so I’ll just suggest that if anything makes people with learning disabilities ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’ it’s government policies and state actions, from cutting social security and legal aid to detaining people without lawful authority. It’s hard to see how any real change can come from a position where disabled people are perceived as weak and vulnerable victims needing to be saved.

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