When SEN Tribunal looms, seek legal advice

Many parents find themselves in the position, as they try to secure a statement for their child with special needs, of having to go to Tribunal when they cannot reach an agreement with their local authority about provision. This is, always, a very stressful situation.

It’s hoped that the new reforms that are now being discussed will prevent much of this – or at least that’s the intention. Without substantial improvements to the draft bill however, many believe it will do nothing of the sort.

It is always recommended that you do not represent yourself at Tribunal, even if you are legally qualified to do so. This is because it is very difficult to remain detached when the future of your child is being discussed when this is a situation to which  you are extremely emotionally attached.

There are several avenues you can go down. As well as IPSEA, SOS!SEN and the NAS Advocacy Service, there are various SEN Advocates, some of whom work pro bono. You may also decide to engage the services of a solicitor – there is a list on this page.

Additionally, due to the recent changes in the law, barristers can now accept instructions from parents (and local Authorities) directly. This is called Direct Access and more information is on the Bar Council website, however, it is not possible for those on legal aid, though they can still have their case in part funded. This is particularly welcome as the costs are no longer duplicated.

One such barrister is Gulshanah Choudhuri, who works throughout England. I recently met Gulshanah and was very impressed by her compassion and quiet determination with which she pursues the best solution for her clients. She has a very personal reason for working in the field of SEN law – a mother of two, she has a daughter with Downs Syndrome and so has an intimate knowledge of what it is like to live with a child with additional needs.

While working in criminal law, she found herself often asked for legal SEN advice to parents at the school gates.

Gulshanah says, “I became very interested in SEN law while I was practising as a family and criminal barrister, that I began to question why not just do SEN law? So I did and instead of giving free legal advice at the school gates I set up my own chambers www.senbarristers.co.uk and have never looked back. I always remember my parents saying good things come when you follow your passion, and they have. Not only am I helping parents to secure what is rightfully their children’s education but I am following my passion. If I could I would have done SEN law when I qualified!”

Gulshanah has worked as a pro bono legal adviser for IPSEA in the past, and has been able to help many parents get the help their child needs, offering mediation as well as representation at Tribunals.

She says, “One client I advised came to me with an appeal to the Upper Tribunal and upon having a one hour conference with him, it soon became apparent that what he needed was to urgently amend the grounds of appeal to one of Judicial Review. The Upper Tribunal have accepted and he will now be doing the hearing himself, with me supporting him. Parents can use a barrister such as myself for all sorts of issues relating to SEN, such as a school excluding children with SEN on a school trip.”

It has always seemed to me a disgrace that parents have to seek legal redress at all when we are talking about the needs of a vulnerable child, but sadly, this is all too often the case. If you find yourself in this position, have reached a stalemate with the local authority and feel you need to seek legal advice, do your research, check out the list I have compiled, which is by no means definitive.

I must stress I have no personal experience of their services, apart from having consulted Douglas Silas who gave me good advice and my personal knowledge of Gulshanah, whom I like very much, and who would be my first port of call should I ever need SEN legal help. However, the page does include some honest recommendations from parents.

Advocates For Children – a FREE SEN legal advocacy charity.

The world of special needs is, I have discovered, populated with extraordinary people  – both those who care and do their best for their children and professionals who go the extra mile to provide whatever help they can.

One such lady is Gloria Vessel, a barrister who has for many years carried out pro bono work for families affected by disabilities and SEN. In a decade of helping families at the SEN Tribunal, Gloria has never lost a case.  However, it became clear that she could not take on all the children whose parents were asking for her help so she founded the charity, Advocates for Children. Today, Gloria has written about the charity and its work exclusively for Special Needs Jungle.

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For parents of children with disabilities it really is a jungle out there, especially when it comes to getting the right school, or the right schooling for your child. Parents are faced with a bewildering mass of Codes of Practice, deadlines, and the ever present prospect of having to take your case to a Special Educational Needs Tribunal. Advocates for Children is here to help.  We are a relatively new charity; only three years old.  Our volunteer Advocates help children with disabilities and life-limiting conditions aged 4 – 16 with problems at school.  Our services are free.

Advocates For ChildrenProblems we deal with include getting the right educational support for a child at school, getting the right school for the child,  giving parents advice on where they are going with their child’s case, or addressing the issues of bullying or abuse of children. We believe that when you are helping children one size does not fit all.  No two cases are ever the same, and we know that every child and every family are unique, so we devise help to fit the needs of each family and each child.

Your child is never just a case number to us.  Your child is a unique and special individual that we are privileged to advocate for. It is our policy to see each child that we Advocate for, so that we know best how to help them.  Our central focus is always what is best for the child. We also give advice to parents over the telephone, where they simply have a query that they need some help with.

For many parents we can resolve a problem with one call. If parents want to be legally represented, we can help you to find the right solicitor, and to advise you on what you need to do.  In certain circumstances, we would represent our own clients at a Special Educational Needs Tribunal, however we try as hard as we can to avoid a Tribunal if that is possible. The law is a vital tool for parents to be able to get help for their child, but we urge parents not to see it as a first resort, or as the only resort. So often parents will ring asking about Tribunals, or they are even be on their way to Tribunal, without ever having been told, or having been able to find out, what they actually need to do to give themselves the best chance of success at a Tribunal, or even understanding exactly what is involved.  That is a dangerous position to be in.  Knowledge is power, so we help to give you that knowledge.

It is also amazing how many parents have been told that they need to go to Tribunal without ever having really met with the Local Education Authority to discuss their child’s case.  We can review a case and see where there are areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, and see if a solution can be arrived at by negotiation and not by immediate legal action.  That benefits both sides and benefits the child.  And, if it comes to a Tribunal, the parents will be much better prepared, and will know what they need to focus on.  It really is good to talk! A Tribunal is a legal procedure and the evidence you put forward is vital to your case.  We advise you on what the evidence is that you need.  You know your child inside out, but a Tribunal Panel does not.  They have to decide on what your child is all about by the written evidence in front of them.  So, you need your written evidence to help you make your case.  Of course you can talk about your child, but you need written evidence too.

As a barrister I have the greatest respect for and faith in the legal process, but I also know that the better informed parents are the better equipped they are to make all-important decisions for their children before that process begins. Advocates for Children believes in the dignity of the child.  We champion the legal and human rights of the children we Advocate for and our watchwords are ‘Listen, Respect, Care’. Our Trustees are all Mums and Grandmums who really understand what our clients are facing and that is what we feel is our greatest strength, as it drives all that we do for these special children. Our Mission Statement is; To enable children with disabilities to have the opportunity to fulfil their true potential and have their chance to shine. We are proud to do just that.

http://advocatesforchildren.org.uk/

SEN Lawyer Links

If you are looking for additional help, there are free services such as IPSEA and SOS!SEN as well as the NAS Advocacy Service is your child has ASD. You may decide, however, that you would prefer to use the services of an SEN Expert Lawyer. Below are the names of some such experts. If you are an education lawyer not on this list or you know of a lawyer that you can personally recommend, please contact me

  • SEN Barristers –  Gulshanah Choudhri has a child of her own with Down’s Syndrome, so as well as legal expertise, she has a personal understanding of the SEN issues. She stresses that, due to recent changes, she can offer a full service from initial consultation through to Tribunal, if necessary.

“With Gulshanah fighting in your corner and bringing her incisive mind and laser like cross examination skills to bear upon proceedings, you can feel confident that she will expose inconsistencies in the expert witnesses of the LA. I for one have had the privilege of seeing her in action and cannot commend her services highly enough.” Barrie Griffiths, Portsmouth

  • Douglas Silas Solicitors -I have met Douglas and he is dedicated to the SEN cause. He also has an extremely informative website. (North London based)
  • SEN Legal  Principal Solicitor is Melinda Nettleton and she is supported by Karen McAtamney and Adam Ottaway Friel. (Suffolk based)

“SEN Legal represented us and managed to secure us a placement at More House School. We definitely couldn’t have done it without them. Sally Brockaway

  • Maxwell Gillott – Quoted in Chambers and Partners 2011: Education: Individuals, Elaine Maxwell has been advising on provision for severely disabled pupils. Sources say she has a “phenomenal understanding of the issues that parents dealing with SEN face.” (Various locations)
  • Anthony Collins LLP I have met Inez Brown of this company and she is very well informed, highly experienced and committed. They are based in Birmingham
  • Children’s Legal Practice “We have acted in connection with numerous appeals to the Special Educational Needs & Disability Tribunal. These appeals have included cases involving statutory assessments, contents of statement, ceasing to maintain statements and Part 4 of the statement.” (Hampshire based)
  • AM Phillips “As both a professional, working within the field of education law, and as a parent of a son with special educational needs, I understand the pressures that parents experience on a daily basis.” (London, Wales)
  • Sinclairs Law “leading experts in the field of Special Education Needs (SEN) & Education Law, acting throughout England & Wales.” (Birmingham, Cardiff, London based)
  • JMW  “JMW Solicitors are experts in all aspects of special educational needs law; for over a decade JMW Solicitors’ medical negligence team has been dedicated to this tricky area of the law.” (Manchester/Salford based)
  • Moore Blatch “Let our wealth of experience in this niche area of law work for your child” Leena Hurloll, Senior Solicitor (South)
  • CDLaw (Robert Love) “Christopher Davidson’s experienced education law team is dedicated to helping ensure that your child receives the education he or she needs.” (Cheltenham based)
  • Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP “Fisher Jones Greenwood’s education law advice service is available to anyone with concerns about a child’s or their own education.” (Essex based)
  • Turners Solicitors “We specialise in representing parents of children with special educational needs whatever their diagnosis” (Wales based)
  • Langley Wellington “Langley Wellington has a very experienced team dedicated specifically to all aspects of education law.  The team’s success rate in SENDIST Appeals is around 90%.” (Gloucester based)
  • Match Solicitors “Match Solicitors are experts in assisting children with special educational needs.” (London based)
  • Stones Solicitors “Do you  have matters relating to schooling which you are concerned about or do you know others who might? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then Stones is able to offer advice on all Education Law matters.” (Devon based)
  • Allen & Co “Education law is our primary area of expertise. Advice and help is provided on school admission appeals, exclusions, school transport, special educational needs (SEN), equality and discrimination matters and more general education or school issues.” (Buckinghamshire based)
  • Education Advocacy “Education Advocacy is a specialist legal consultancy, which provides legal support and guidance to parents of children with  special educational needs.” (Somerset based)

“We used Nigel Pugh of Education Advocacy. He was very reasonable and I do not feel the outcome would have been the same without him. My son is now fully funded at a special school”  J Faux

  • Advocacy & Mediation “We are experts in supporting parents and carers of children with special educational needs and disabilities”

“I can highly recommend SEN advocate Fiona Slomovic of Advocacy & Mediation. Fiona helped secured a place for my AS son at a Cambian AS-specific school with a waking day curriculum without going to tribunal. I recommend her to everyone. She is highly experienced and wins most of her tribunals” A Elliott