Lawyers struggle to provide people with learning disabilities with the specialist support they need, according to new research published today.
A report by the Norah Fry Research Centre at the University of Bristol found lawyers lack experience in dealing with people with learning disabilities and are seen as a last resort for resolving legal problems.
While good practice was found, lawyers were sometimes uncertain how to communicate and lacked knowledge of where to get specialist support.
The research was carried out on behalf of the Legal Services Board, Legal Services Consumer Panel and learning disability charity Mencap.
The LSB has now written to the legal sector’s professional bodies asking them to develop guidelines for all lawyers to help them better understand how to deal with people with a learning disability.
The study found people with learning disabilities have a wide range of potential legal needs, including parents fighting to keep care of their children, workers claiming workplace discrimination and they can be victims of hate crimes.
The research was the result of a number of focus groups involving a total of 90 people with learning disabilities and interviews with 26 family carers and nine legal services professionals.
It found family carers mostly rely on the internet and learning disability charities for help rather than going to a lawyer, which is seen as a last resort.
Some lawyers were found to be skilled in adapting their practices to meet the needs of their clients, but there were also examples found where lawyers could not be understood, appeared disinterested or were not able to signpost clients to the right specialist support.
Legal aid cuts were also predicted to have a major impact on access to legal support, with funding cuts to Citizens Advice Bureaux exacerbating the problem.
Chris Kenny (pictured), chief executive of the LSB, said: ‘People with learning disabilities often need access to justice more than other people, but often have far more difficulty in accessing services.
‘There is a real opportunity for professional and third-sector bodies to work together to redress this gap by producing practical guidance to help bring all services up to the level of the best.’
The Legal Services Board has incorporated a British Standard (BS18477) relating to vulnerable clients into its policy toolkit and is writing to the approved regulators to invite them to demonstrate how they have incorporated the standard into their work.
Last year the Legal Services Consumer Panel wrote to the LSB and a range of organisations in the sector urging them to adopt the Standard.
Mencap will also develop ‘easy read’ materials on choosing legal services designed to support people with learning disabilities.