Families of children with special educational needs offered appeal support from Nottingham Law School

Families of children with special educational needs who are appealing local authority education and support decisions can access free advice and representation from the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre.

Child playing with a sensory board

The Centre’s Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Service, which has been developed over the past 18 months, offers advice and support to parents and guardians of children and young people with Educational Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) on matters such as home-to-school transport, complaints, appeal panels, and educational placements. It also offers representation at tribunal – a service for which legal aid is not ordinarily available.

The multi award-winning teaching law firm, which received the Contribution to the Community Award 2020 from the Nottinghamshire Law Society, sees students at Nottingham Law School work on cases under the supervision of qualified lawyers. It offers free and affordable advice and support on a range of legal areas and has recently passed the £5 million mark in benefits and compensation awarded to its clients.

Supervising Caseworker at the Legal Advice Centre, Callum Scott, said: “We became increasingly aware of a gap in provision of legal services for families who had education law issues and, in particular, those seeking advice on special educational needs and disability discrimination.

“While SEND matters and cases involving disability discrimination in educational settings can be covered by Legal Aid, the provision does not generally extend to representation at the Tribunal or Courts. There are also many well-documented issues around access to and eligibility for Legal Aid.

“For some families, while they can access publicly funded assistance to prepare an appeal, they have to self-fund, or go without, representation at the hearing itself.”

The service has recently completed its first case submitted to the SEND Tribunal, representing parents in an appeal against the local authority’s choice of school for their daughter who has complex sensory needs and autism.

The provision of advice and assistance with filing an appeal to the SEND Tribunal, along with representation during negotiations with the local authority, led to a placement at the parents’ choice of specialist school, considered by a range of experts to be the most appropriate placement for the child. The Centre also assisted the parents in securing specialist home-to-school transport for their daughter.

Parents Simon and Rachel Gore-Smith said: “We are so grateful for everything the Legal Advice Centre did to get us this result. We couldn’t have done it without their help, there’s no way I could have written an appeal the way they did. When we met with the team, we felt that they were completely on our side and that we could absolutely rely on them to do their utmost to help us – they were humble and conscientious. When you’re up against such big odds it makes all the difference knowing you’ve got someone like that supporting you. They gave our daughter a voice and took the pressure off our family at what was a very difficult time for a number of reasons.”

Head of the Legal Advice Centre, Laura Pinkney, said: “We are pleased to be able to offer this unique service in Nottinghamshire. The appeals process can be expensive, emotional and stressful for families, and Legal Aid does not go far enough to support people who find themselves in an appeal situation.”

As a not for profit teaching law firm with charitable status, the Centre was the UK’s first law firm fully integrated into a law school when it obtained an ABS (Alternative Business Structure) licence in 2015.

It has won a string of awards, most recently including ABS of the Year in the Modern Law Awards 2020; being ‘Highly Commended’ for Volunteer Team of the Year at the East Midlands Charity Awards 2020; Paralegal, Jack Stuart, named as a ‘Rising Star’ in the Volunteer of the Year category at the East Midlands Charity Awards 2020; and Supervising Caseworker, Callum Scott achieving double success by being awarded Paralegal of the Year at the Modern Law Awards 2020 and also Highly Commended in the Junior Lawyer of the Year category at the highly competitive and prestigious Law Society Excellence Awards.

The SEND service was launched thanks to funding from Santander Universities UK, which also provides ongoing support with training and development resources.