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Government Tells Parents to Use YouTube, not Lawyers, in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal

View profile for Ed Duff
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We recently wrote about a very substantial release of information by the Department for Education. That release served to review parents' and families' experiences of the new Special Educational Needs and Disability system and their experiences of challenging decisions made by Local Authorities.

Within our detailed review, we noted with some concern the Department for Education's initial response to the review findings. We felt that the survey and its results may have been slightly misleading and certainly the interpretation applied by the Department for Education did not seem to recognise the issues that were being raised.

This afternoon we have seen a staggering release via the Law Gazette entitled "Use YouTube, not Lawyers, Minister tells Disability Parents.

In a joint response to the research that was commissioned by the Department for Education, the Justice Minister, Oliver Heald QC and Edward Timpson, Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families, have suggested that parents and families pursuing an appeal through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal should make used of YouTube.

It should also be noted that the statement released also highlights that there is a telephone helpline available to parents who are pursuing an appeal through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.

In respect of the helpline, this appears to be the Legal Aid helpline which is currently administered by Civil Legal Advice. This is not available to everyone. In order to qualify for any advice via Civil Legal Advice, and the telephone helpline, the family have to be on extremely low income and, most commonly, in receipt of income related benefits. This obviously represents the minority of people.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the Legal Aid budget has been cut significantly over the last few years. This has resulted in far fewer 'types' of cases being funded by Legal Aid, and far tighter restrictions on those who are eligible for Legal Aid.

Therefore, what this recent release from the two departments actually serves to suggest is that the majority of families, in preparing for an appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal, should simply rely on YouTube.

The statement, as reproduced in the Law Gazette, reads as follows "We want to ensure families and LAs... attend mediation without additional legal support... bringing an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability) can be daunting... to help families navigate their way through the process, the Tribunal runs a telephone helpline and has produced a video..."

A simple Google search for the videos referred to reveal that they were produced in 2012.

The date of production of the video is relevant because the Special Educational Needs and Disability reforms, contained in the Children and Families Act, came into effect in September 2014. This is a full two years after the videos were produced. Whilst the procedural rules concerning the conduct of an appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal have not changed, the underpinning law has. The Department for Education itself referred to the Special Educational Needs and Disability reforms as being the biggest for a generation. It is difficult to imagine, therefore, how a parent, or young person, potentially with a disability, and without any formal legal training, could possibly hope to navigate an appeal without some form of legal advice using only an outdated YouTube video as a reference.

One of the most frustrating things about this release is that the Department for Education should be aware of the plethora of alternatives to lawyers. There are several national support groups being run by parents and other charitable organisations. In addition, the Department currently funds, at significant public expense, services to provide independent Special Educational Needs advice to families who are thinking about an appeal to the Tribunal. This is particularly via the Independent Advice Support Service (IASS). Why there is no mention of this service is unclear.

We would strongly suggest that anyone seeking any advice in respect of an appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal should research it thoroughly. Relying on a YouTube video, particularly one which is so outdated, is very unlikely to assist in any material way. Further, we would strongly suggest that parents liaise with their local IASS service, research local parents' support groups in their area, investigate their qualification for Legal Aid, attend the numerous national events hosted by disability focused organisations, speak with an advocacy group such as IPSEA or seek professional legal advice.

If you are experiencing difficulties in relation to securing additional support for your child from the Local Authority, then please do not hesitate to contact our specialist education law solicitors team on 02920 291704.

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