Why an unfortunate series of tweets must be a SEND game-changer

If you were browsing Twitter at the weekend, you may have happened upon a series of most startling and revealing tweets. If you were a bit late, you would most probably have seen the screenshots outraged parents took of them instead. 'Someone' at legal firm, Baker Small, who represent a number of local authorities at the SEND Tribunal to defend appeals by parents, decided to embark on what could potentially be a bout of career suicide.

"Great ABA Trib win this week"He obviously erroneously thought other tweeters would also find ridiculing parents fighting for their disabled child's SEND provision, somehow amusing. The BS tweeter (and we do know who it was, by the way) was quickly challenged. But did they stop? Noooooooo...

just shared them with my (laughing) cat

We normally all love tweets with baby animals, but not this one. This was more like a slow-motion car crash [For more tweets, I have included links at the end of this post*]. The BS tweeter, for he shall remain nameless, proceeded to block a number of angry parents, which is a bit like closing your eyes and putting your fingers in your ears.

Not long after, Twitter user @dianeMkay shared a letter of complaint she had written.

Some hours later, the gravity of the issue was realised at Baker Small, the tweets were deleted and, eventually, after a severe Twitter-beating, an apology was issued

I have personal experience of this firm at a SEND Tribunal I attended, when a lawyer at said firm, in his closing statement, said the child in question was, 'lucky to be doing as well as he was at school, considering he had Autism'. This statement is, clearly, given these latest tweets, quite indicative of the ethos of that firm. (My parent won, btw)

The wider issue

This whole, unsavoury debacle brings up several issues: first, it is clear that local authorities are in bed with legal firms who have a win-at-all-costs attitude and who do not take into account  - or do not care - that a vulnerable child is at the heart of the case. Some are keen to make their name establishing new case law or setting precedents that prevent children getting the help their parents believe they need. And let's not forget, the SEND Code of Practice says 'parents know their children best'.

Second, I think this opens a much wider question. Should lawyers be allowed at SEND Tribunals? While it is clear that parents going to Tribunal should be able to have help, if needed, in organising their case and an advocate to support them in such a stressful and unfamiliar setting, should councils be permitted to spend taxpayers money hiring expensive solicitors and barristers to undermine a system that has been changed to stop adversarial practice?

If a Local Authority (LA) wants to deny the support that is being sought, then it should be able to show in the existing law that it is within the legal framework to do so. If they want the law to be clarified, then they should have the guts to represent themselves and explain why. This should not require an external firm, it simply encourages LAs to farm tricky cases out as part of an already-paid-for-with-taxpayers-money contract to a legal firm who don't mind getting their hands dirty. 

It also allows the law firm to be used as a way to prune the number of children the LA will have to issue EHC plans to. When you are paying a legal firm a hefty annual fee for their services, why not drag parents to Tribunal at every opportunity? The thought of Tribunal is more than many parents can bear, and the cost of employing their own solicitor is prohibitively expensive, so they feel forced to give up fighting for the provisions the child needs and the LA doesn't have to pay out anything to meet them.

This current way of doing business means that a non-adversarial system will never, ever, happen because lawyers (on both sides) earn their money by winning cases. And if the LA lawyers win, children lose.

I'm not saying that LAs should just roll over and give parents every thing they are asking for. It should be a calm, reasonable negotiation. A 'no' at an EHCP decision panel by a SEND department, should never be just a no. It should be the door to another meeting where parents are asked to clarify their claim, examine whether all the information has been considered (because this happens far too often) and an agreement can be reached on the support the child needs, whether at SEN Support or perhaps to move ahead with an EHCP or assessment.

Even getting as far as Tribunal is perhaps a sign that the local authority has failed to carry out the new law in a satisfactory manner. Parents DO NOT apply for a statutory assessment or for an EHCP lightly. It's a hell of a lot of work and stress when they are already dealing with a child who is suffering.

If a decision cannot be made there or at mediation, then the (highly experienced) Tribunal judge is perfectly capable of looking at the facts, and hearing from the council's SEND Tribunal Officer and the parent and their advocate (if needed) and asking their own questions before coming to a decision. Increasingly, cases are managed at Case Management telephone hearings and this could be further supported.

How much do local authorities spend on Tribunal lawyers?

Matt Keer, parent of a deaf child, has just spent a couple of hours looking at which local authorities use the services of Baker Small.  He has kindly provided me with his findings, from publicly available sources online. Over to Matt:

"At least four local authorities have live, high-value retainer contracts with Baker Small: 

  • Norfolk: Live (probably rolling) contract for specialist legal advice on SENDIST appeals. Live since 2012, due for expiry / renewal August 2017. Contract value: £600,000 – Link to data here
  • Gloucestershire: Live contract for SENDIST support & staff training, runs 2015-18 with option to extend for 2 further years. Contract value: £300,000 – Link to data here
  • Buckinghamshire: Contract (probably rolling) for SENDIST support & staff training, listed on Bucks contract register. Contract value: £120,000 – Link to data here
  • Hertfordshire: Live contract for SENDIST FTT support – 12 months (most likely rolling), October 2015-Sept 2016. Contract value: £80,000 – Link to data here

 A fair amount of BS business seems to come on a case-by-case basis. I’ve dug through various council’s transparency data returns for expenditure over £500 in the last financial year. This is retrospective data – I can’t tell from it whether these local authorities still use BS or not. But it’s recent. Again, nowhere near comprehensive, but I found the following: 

  • Kensington & Chelsea: ~£50,000 in remittances to BS, for unspecified SEN services - link
  • Hammersmith & Fulham: £72,500 in SEND-specific remittances to BS, including one item for £22,750 bizarrely labelled as “SEND Therapy” - link
  • Hillingdon: ~£60,000 in remittances to BS, of which ~£24,000 are clearly SEND service-related – link

That’s £1.25 million in live SEN contracting action for Baker Small over the last year. And that’s without going north of The Wash - this was data found in just a couple of hours."

If Matt - or anyone else - provides me with more information about how much their LA spends on fighting their children's right to a suitable education, I will include it.

What should happen instead?

Perhaps LAs should use some of the money they spend on lawyers to instead develop thorough, high quality training for their SEN staff so that applications are managed in a timely, legal and expert way. The aim at every stage should be to reach mutual agreement and to avoid escalation and dispute. They could also use some of the money to boost their local Independent Supporter programme so that, should a case need to be decided at a Tribunal because it is nuanced or complex, the IS can accompany the parent all the way through, instead of only as far as the final decision (before any appeal)

The current structure and the way the IS program is being funded only on a year-to-year basis does not provide stability or confidence. It does not encourage LAs to work closely with families (Note: SNJ has its own working with parents presentation for LAs, schools, colleges and NHS if you are interested.)

The message is: 

  1. The DfE must make the system work better so that firms like this one, so clearly hostile to parents, do not get rich on the backs of families' misery.
  2. The government must back up the ideals in the Children and Families Act with the funding to do so. Bringing in holistic, comprehensive new law without ring-fenced funding and the instructions on how it should be spent - is counter-productive, damaging and has led to chaos with families hurting even more. And the Ofsted/CQC inspections are not going to fix things alone or quickly enough.
  3. Local authority leadership must not only read the detail of the Children and Families Act, the SEND Code of Practice and the accompanying Regulations, but must also understand the ETHOS behind it. It's not about you, it's about supporting disabled children. Then they must ensure that EVERY employee understands this too by thorough and continuous training in the law and in how to work with families cooperatively.

Call to action

And finally, back to the tweets that lit the touch paper. If I was an LA decision-maker, I would be very careful whom I hired to represent me, if I hired anyone at all. There is, in my honest opinion, clearly an anti-parent bias shown in these tweets, deleted and apologised for or not, that would make me think twice before I let such a firm represent my interests at Tribunal. Is that really the kind of message they want to send to parents?

And can any parent at a Tribunal hearing where Baker Small are representing their LA now be confident that any agreement they reach is not rooted in this anti-parent approach?

I would like to call on parents to make your feelings about this issue known. If your local authority uses this firm - write to the Council Leader and the Director of Children's services and the Head of SEN and demand that they not spend taxpayers - i.e, your - money on a firm whose approach is clearly so against the new way of working that it sends completely the wrong message to everyone, including Ofsted and the Department of Education.

If your LA uses any firm of SEND lawyers, you should ask them why they do this, when they should spend such scarce resources more positively. Diane Kay is starting a petition along the same lines, I'll add a link when it's available.

We can not change this system by sitting back and hoping for the best. It's time to act.

*There were other tweets from the beleagured BS lawyer, you can find them on Steph's and Debs' blogs

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Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome. Trustee, Genetic Alliance UK.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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  • L Thomas

    Thank you for stating the case for further actions so well.
    On with fair and frank constructiive conversations and Reform, and yes, off with their heads so-to-speak.

    And best wishes to the familiies at the root of this sorry affair.

  • Personally I think that Local Authorities should not be allowed to use lawyers against unrepresented parents, but if the parent has sought legal representation then it is reasonable that the LAs should be allowed to. The Tribunal system should be set up to mean that no one should need to be spending a fortune on lawyers!

  • Fiona Nicholson

    As soon as I saw Baker Small tweeting about winning I thought it was because they were stung by publication of those two Upper Tribunal cases where they had lost

  • AUNYorks

    It should be straightforward to find out how much a council spends on Baker Small – all council payments over £500 should to be disclosed on each Council’s website: Here’s North Yorkshire’s contribution:

    Total to date £52950.00 (ex VAT)

    25/03/15 Other Hired and Contract Services £8000.00 (link)

    20/10/14 Other Hired and Contract Services £3500.00 (link)

    15/4/14 SEN Legal Advice- Other Hired and Contract Services £1600.00 (link)

    20/3/14 Other Hired and Contract Services £3500.00 (link)

    20/3/14 Other Hired and Contract Services £3500.00

    1/8/13 Other Hired and Contract Services £7000.00 (link)

    8/5/13 Other Hired and Contract Services £10000.00 (link) (Corrected figure 13.07.13)

    6/2/13 Other Hired and Contract Services £ 7000.00 (link)

    21/9/11 Other Hired and Contract Services £ 8000.00 (link)

    29/3/11 Other courses – course fees £ 850.00 (link)

  • Carrie

    Not in the slightest bit surprised. The tweets are akin to the level of nastiness and personal digs BS use in their unbelievably and purposefully sloppy tribunal presentations. Any excuse to get a case to the Upper Tribunal.
    Serious questions need to be asked about LA’s definition of best value and the degree to which LA, school and health staff are being deliberately indoctrinated into misunderstanding the responsibilities owed to children and young people. Its about time they could be put into special measure for their approach to SEN alone.
    And please lets not forget that the new legislation may have given young people the ‘right’ to appeal but it also leaves them vulnerable to having to defend LA appeals to the UT.

  • Jayne Fitzgerald

    Unacceptable and outrageous behaviour and hopefully the end of this firms involvement in the SEND world. We are stronger together as parents taking action, the last 2 days have evidenced that. However we need to be mindful that not ALL Local Authorities are ‘in bed with legal firms’ and use internal processes. Lessons to be learnt by every area too, Invest in Partnership working fro better outcomes for the child /young person, use the money to meet the needs .

  • Wendy Finn

    The Twitter account isn’t deleted. It’s still going. Perhaps you are blocked. It’s full of tweets of apology and the pinned tweet is an open letter of apology. They are apparently unblocking people but I can send screenshots if needed. Absolutely disgraceful behaviour on their part and at least one other solicitor pointed out the tweets were ill-advised and should stop–and he got blocked for doing so.

    Makes my blood boil that they see the whole thing as a game to be won or lost.

    • Thanks yes, I saw, we’re not blocked, someone tweeted an image of a blocked account. I think, perhaps, they should consider not tweeting anything else at all!

      • Wendy Finn

        I would have to agree. Social media is great for some things but a solicitor boasting about how they’ve got one over on a child with SEN and laughing in the face of the parents, is perhaps not one of the best uses of social media.

  • Moominmamma11

    I wish I were surprised by this Twitter Storm. Im almost grateful for Baker Small’s honesty. We have experienced very poor tactics by the LA and their legal team, we started the process on our own but had to seek legal representation. We had no mediation, no compromise, no discussion outside of the legal route despite several attempts to voice basic concerns and general discussion direct with them we were ignored. It was clear we would end up at Tribunal from the get go. They pushed us to the very brink with multiple appeals and oral hearings FTT and UTT so Barristers required for both parties, their case was built on appealing legal loopholes, case law and setting precedence rather than our child specifically….£45k later, our refusal to be bullied and armed with real life evidence that never changed, only strengthened with each passing day, our case is now over and our child is thriving…although as a family unit we are barely standing – emotionally, physically, mentally, financially. Sounds strange to say it but we all just feel numb, not unlike what I imagine some level of PTSD to feel. The money, time and energy would have been better spent addressing the actually need, probably the need of many students and families, not just ours! We fully expect a new loophole to be exploited down the line despite an UTT ruling and a Judge refusing permission for further appeal. A truly horrific experience.

  • EmEmAndBen

    Warwickshire hired BS recently as well – around Autumn 2015. BS were due to attend a tribunal on their behalf last week as it happens.

  • Renata, this is a far bigger issue. Family solicitors are regularly cutthroat and prepared to ‘bend the rules’ for cash. They are protected by confidentiality, which can be used to hide abuse. The same goes for judges. The entire system needs overhaul and an audit in place at least as powerful as the IPCC but with a different process. We live in an age where we know making judges and lawyers accountable and transparent will save money and lives. It really is about time contempt for a broken system is not treated as contempt for good law. These people are not the 19th Century Gods they once were.

  • Funny thing is, parents win a much larger percentage of cases in our county than BS do. By the end of Tribunal though, families have suffered unnecessary stresses and financial losses which often contribute to breakdowns, not to mention the children who have often been out of school for months or even years whilst suitable provision is argued over. Maybe the LAs should be fined and ordered to pay back parents’ costs every time the LA loses? Might be enough of a reason for them to consider correct legal provision for the child in the first place? The system as it stands is so unbelievably unfair – parents with no legal background often have to fight their own corner whilst the LAs pay these so called ‘professionals’ huge amounts of money to often discredit parents. If parents can’t afford legal back-up then the LA shouldn’t be allowed to use any either. Let’s hope this whole Twitter storm leads to a massive shake-up and change for the better in the whole system.

    • It will if we make it…

    • Gerard Ryan

      Fighting cases means the LA can defer incurring the cost of provision which in many cases will save them money despite the cost and resources used. The savings can then fund a specialist barrister or legal service like Baker Small which gives the LA, who of course already have their own legal team, a further edge over the parents. The tribunal system is far from perfect and LAs win many tribunals they shouldn’t because of better preparation and professional representation compared with the parents. I suspect there are very few tribunals won inappropriately by the child’s team.

    • Gerard Ryan

      Also, the people we are fighting on the LA team do this for their day jobs. We as parents pick up the fight with what energy we have left at the end of a working day & after dealing with our children.

  • Gerard Ryan

    Sadly I think this debacle might increase, rather than decrease, Baker Small’s business with cynical LAs.

  • SENMum

    Well written!! LB CAMDEN also use Baker Small!! Would be great to know their expenditure also.

  • Carrie

    Yes but expenditure is not the same as cost and who evaluates the true cost to the child/young person?