Lawyers urged to adapt when advising clients with learning disabilities

CAB: worries over impact of office closures

Lawyers needs to improve their interpersonal skills, be patient, respectful and remove jargon to provide disabled clients with a better legal service, research has claimed.

More needs to be done to advertise legal services to people with learning disabilities, with easily accessible offices, clearer signage and straightforward language – according to the three-month study conducted by the Norah Fry Research Centre at the University of Bristol.

The report on what happens to people with learning disabilities when they need advice about the law was commissioned by the Legal Services Board, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and Mencap.

The researchers were “struck” by how often a good solicitor or Citizens Advice Bureau worker was known to several members of a group because of their “good interpersonal skills” or relevant legal specialism – whereas ‘bad outcomes’ were often put down to poor communication.

Those who contacted solicitors directly were more likely to feel intimidated by the use of jargon or technical terms and feel as though they were not in control of the situation.

The research involved 18 focus groups with a total of 90 people with learning disabilities; 26 telephone interviews with family carers of people with learning disabilities; and nine telephone interviews with legal services professionals.

It aimed to identify good and bad practices in the law and what barriers there were for disabled people accessing legal service.

The report was in response to the LSB’s recognition that potentially vulnerable consumers face particular access to justice problems.

Good practice for clients with a learning disability was identified as lawyers who listen and direct conversation to the client, rather than their support, while allowing extra time to accommodate communication needs and not be “rude or arrogant”.

One client commented in the study: “Solicitors are a bit like doctors, they have so much time allotted to a client and they have quite a lot of clients and all I am saying is where they would normally give somebody say half an hour to three-quarters of an hour they should give us an hour because sometimes it’s very hard for us, we stammer over some of the words that we want to say, some of the words don’t come out the way we want them to come out, and I think if they gave us just that little bit more time we would eventually be able to say what we want to say without having to rely on our support.”

A number of participants highlighted positive examples of lawyers taking the time to check the client had understood the key concepts involved.

However, competence in the law still remains an absolute necessity for these clients.

Most of those questioned had a lack of knowledge of the law and found it a “relief” that someone could deal with the technical aspects of the law and convey a “sense of confidence” that their problems would be resolved.

The report concluded: “The research found that some lawyers were skilled in working with people with learning disabilities and adapted their practices to meet the needs of their clients. However, there were also examples in the research where lawyers could not be understood, appeared uninterested or were not able to signpost clients to the right specialist support.”

It was suggested that good practice can be promoted through collaboration between legal services and learning disability and carers’ organisations.

The report said: “Several groups talked about training that the host organisation had undertaken with the police, health workers and social work students and went on to suggest that similar training should be offered to legal professionals.

“Several also suggested that self-advocacy organisations could help legal services produce accessible information.”

Other aspects of the report found that prospective clients with learning difficulties are heavily reliant on family, friends or carers to help them with an issue and that legal advice is often the last resort.

The report found a concern that legal aid changes and cuts to CABx would make finding specialist advice even harder.

Participants were quick to link their satisfaction with a legal professional and the professional’s willingness to do legal aid work. For many, simply getting advice and representation paid for through legal aid represented a good outcome irrespective of the final resolution of the issue.

The research showed that the costs of seeking advice deterred clients from contacting a solicitor, with the vast majority for people with learning difficulties too poor to fund legal advice when faced with law centres and CAB closing down.

The LSB said that it will be working with the other commissioning bodies to incorporate the lessons from the research, which included recommendations that lawyers’ awareness of learning disabilities should be strengthened through professional training and guidance.

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