Leading Article: Special needs merit speedy justice

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The Independent Culture
SAM MANSELL, whose brain was damaged when he was starved of oxygen at birth, this week won more than pounds 3m for medical negligence. The out- of-court deal with his health authority, though welcome, came 11 years after his birth. Such delay is unacceptable.

Wheelchair-bound, Sam cannot speak, eat or control his limbs. He wears bandages to protect himself and needs full-time care. His mother described him as "in physical and emotional pain on a daily basis". That his mother had to battle for more than a decade to get proper assistance for him is an added tragedy.

As she explained, if Sam had received the therapies and equipment he needed from his earliest years, he would not be so disabled now. Instead, she was forced to divide her energy between his needs and fighting the state for help. For her troubles she was branded "unstable". Sadly, this is not a culture in which children's needs, or parents', are put first.

Unfortunately, Sam's case is not unusual. Many families, already going through the battle to bring up a disabled child, face the added burden of struggling for seven or eight years while claims for negligence plod through the courts. Meanwhile they must deal with a multitude of different education, health and social services agencies. Some end up fundraising privately. Others resort to so-called "dying lines", warning that care is so inadequate that their child could die.

This means, as ever, that those who shout loudest get the most help. Less assertive parents - perhaps single parents, or poor English-speakers - lose out.

Instead of this mess, all parents deserve two things. First, as efficient a legal process as possible in which defendants do not, as sometimes occurs, prolong cases in the hope that parents will drop out. Legal bills can exceed pounds 100,000. Second, they should get the day-to-day help they need. Already, education authorities are legally bound to meet disabled children's needs: that should also apply to health and social services. Then children might get the help they deserve.