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.
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 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 and check how much it will cost.
*Please note. Gulshanah has tragically passed away after a serious illness. TT