gavelLawyers often struggle to provide people with learning disabilities with the specialist support they need because of a lack of experience in dealing with them, according to new research.

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

Meanwhile, a lack of accessible advice and information is preventing people with learning disabilities from dealing with legal issues effectively.  The research found that people with learning disabilities are unclear how legal services could help them and rely on people close to them for support.

In light of this research, the Legal Services Board has written to the legal sector’s professional bodies asking them to consider developing guidelines for all lawyers, which would help them better understand the support and communication needs of people with a learning disability.

The research was undertaken by the Norah Fry Research Centre, based at the University of Bristol, on behalf of the Legal Services Board, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and the learning disability charity Mencap. It involved 90 people with learning disabilities and interviews with 26 family carers and 9 legal services professionals.

Other findings of the research include:

• People with learning disabilities have a wide range of potential legal needs. Common issues include parents with learning disabilities fighting to keep care of their children, discrimination in the workplace, disputed benefit claims, and bullying and hate crime
• Family carers mostly rely on the internet, learning disability charities and support groups for help rather than go to a lawyer, which is seen as a last resort measure
• There is difficulty finding specialist advice and people worry that legal aid changes and funding cuts to Citizens Advice Bureaux could make this worse
• The research highlighted the positive effects of getting the right legal advice: relief, improved quality of life and a sense of empowerment.

The Legal Services Board has also incorporated a British Standard (BS18477) relating to vulnerable clients into its policy toolkit and is writing to regulators to invite them to demonstrate how they have incorporated the standard into their work.

In addition, Mencap will develop ‘easy read’ materials on choosing legal services designed to support people with learning disabilities.
Communication challenge

Chris Kenny, chief executive of the Legal Services Board, said: “People with learning disabilities often need access to justice more than other people, but often have far more difficulty in accessing services. This research shows that a range of good practice exists, but that too often lawyers are uncertain how to communicate with people with learning disabilities and lack the knowledge themselves of where to get specialist support. So 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.”

Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, added: “The research shows that further guidance for lawyers on how to best communicate with and support clients with a learning disability would be incredibly helpful for both parties. This is especially important given the difficulty families face in getting specialist advice and the concerns they expressed about changes to legal aid and funding cuts for Citizens Advice Bureaux.”

Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, said: “In the face of changes to legal aid and declining funding for Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux, this report shows the really positive difference that high quality legal services can make to people with learning disabilities. It also reveals some of the challenges facing lawyers who lack experience dealing with this client group. We would like to see the professional bodies support lawyers and consumers alike by developing guidance on the simple things they can do better to serve people with learning disabilities.”