A law firm has apologised after an employee sent gloating tweets about winning legal cases on special educational needs (SEN) children - but has appeared to blame parents in the process.
Baker Small, a law firm that defends council decisions about SEN statements (a formal document detailing a child's learning difficulties) sent a series of tweets ranging from apparent enjoyment of parents losing cases - "it does make me smile" - to images of a cat laughing.
The tweets, which have since been deleted, prompted an astonished response over the lack of professionalism, particularly since the parents referred to will have been challenging the school allocated to their child and are likely to have been unable to afford a lawyer.
The first tweet from the Milton Keynes-based firm read: "Crikey, had a great 'win' last week which sent some parents into a storm! It is always a great win when the other side thinks they won!"
Whoever was writing on behalf of Baker Small continued by questioning an "applied behavioural analysis" – which is used with some children who have autism – by saying: "Great ABA Trib win this week...interesting to see how parents continue to persist with it. Funny thing is parents think they won ;)".
SEN statements, care plans and ABAs are all used by councils and local authorities to determine the severity of a child's needs and the school placement and support they should receive, and are therefore often anxiously awaited by parents.
When Twitter users suggested that "a little more gravitas" would be appropriate, co-founder Mark Small wrote a lengthy apology which also appeared to blame parents and the way the law works, which has also now been deleted.
Mr Small gave an example of the "very distasteful emails" received by the firm from parents, which included expletives such as "c***" and warned his family to be careful.
After more critics on Twitter accused him of "parent blaming", this too was taken down today.
Melinda Nettleton, principle solicitor at SEN Legal, the largest special needs practice in the country, said councils were fully aware of Baker Small's long-standing reputation, which was in evidence "before any cuts to council services."
She said that Baker Small appears to be concerned with "winning at all costs" with little consideration of the child, saying: "It's a bad attitude".
She added: “The idea that councils are innocent victims here, and champions of the disabled, is completely wrong. They know what these law firms are like”.
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
1/7 Closing Remploy factories
The Work and Pensions Secretary called time on Britain’s system of Remploy factories, which provided subsidised and sheltered employment to disabled people. People employed at the factories protested against their closure and said they provided gainful work. “Is it a kindness to stick people in some factory where they are not doing any work at all? Just making cups of coffee?” Mr Duncan Smith said at the time, defending the decision. “I promise you this is better.” The Remploy organisation was privatised and sold to American workfare provider Maximus, with the majority of the organisation’s factories closed. The future of the remaining sites is unclear
2/7 Scrapping the Independent Living Fund
The £320m Independent Living Fund was established in 1988 to give financial support to people with disabilities. It was scrapped on July 1 2015, with 18,000 often severely disabled people losing out by an average of £300 a week. The money was generally used to help pay for carers so people could live in communities rather than institutions. Councils will get a boost in funding to compensate but it will not cover the whole cost of the fund. This new cash also doesn’t have to be spent on the disabled
3/7 Cut payments for the disabled Access To Work scheme
Iain Duncan Smith is bringing forward a policy that will reduce payments to some disabled people from a scheme designed to help them into work. The £108m scheme, which helps 35,540 people, will be capped on a per-used basis, potentially hitting those with the more serious disabilities who currently receive the most help. The single biggest users of the fund are people who have difficulty seeing and hearing. The cut will come in from October 2015. The charity Disability UK says the scheme actually makes the Government money because the people who gain access to work tend pay tax that more than covers its cost. The DWP does not describe the reduction as a “cut” and says it will be able to spread the money more thinly and cover more people
4/7 Cut Employment and Support Allowance
The latest Budget included a £30 a week cut in disability benefits for some new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The Government says it is equalising the rate of disability benefits with Jobseekers Allowance because giving disabled people more help is a “perverse incentive”. The people affected by this cut are those assessed as having a limited capability for work but as being capable of some “work-related activity”. A group of prominent Catholics wrote to Mr Duncan Smith to say there was “no justification” for this cut. Mental health charity Mind, said the cut was “insulting and misguided”
5/7 Risk homelessness with a sharp increase disability benefit sanctions
Official figures in the first quarter of 2014 found a huge increase in sanctions against people reliant on ESA sickness benefit. The 15,955 sanctions were handed out in that period compared to 3,574 in the same period the year before, 2013 – a 4.5 times increase. The homelessness charity Crisis warned at the time that the sharp rise in temporary benefit cuts was “cruel and can leave people utterly destitute – without money even for food and at severe risk of homelessness”. “It is difficult to see how they are meant to help people prepare for work,” Matt Downie, director of policy at the charity added
6/7 Sending sick people to work because of broken fitness to work tests
In 2012 a government advisor appointed to review the Government’s Work Capability Assessment said the tests causing suffering by sending sick people back to work inappropriately. “There are certainly areas where it's still not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement,” Professor Malcolm Harrington concluded. The tests are said to have improved since then, but as recently as this summer they are still coming in for criticism. In June the British Psychological Society said there was “now significant body of evidence that the WCA is failing to assess people’s fitness for work accurately and appropriately”. It called for a full overhaul of the way the tests are carried out. The WCA appeals system has also been fraught with controversy with a very high rate of overturns and delays lasting months and blamed for hardship
7/7 The bedroom tax
The Government’s benefit cut for people who it says are “under-occupying” their homes disproportionately affects disabled people. Statistics released last year show that around two-thirds of those affected by the under-occupancy penalty, widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’, are disabled. There have been a number of high profile cases of disabled people being moved out of specially adapted homes by the policy. In one case publicised by the Sunday People last week, a 48 year old man with cerebral palsy was forced to bathe in a paddling pool after the tax moved him out of his home with a walk-in shower. The Government says it has provided councils with a discretionary fund to help reduce the policy’s impact on disabled people, but cases continue to arise
Other experts in SEN tribunals, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Independent that local authorites have a "conflict of interest" around EHC (Education, Health and Care) plans for young people, because they are required to fund those places and so are discouraged from making expensive recommendations.
These plans determine how a child's special needs are classified and where they should go to school. Furthermore, only about 59 per cent of these cases are seen within the time frame they should be, according to Department for Education statistics.
One council, Cambridgeshire County Council, has told Twitter it has severed its contract with Baker Small following the comments and public outcry.
The number of SEN statements and plans has increased each year, with 256,315 across the country as of January 2016, according to the Department for Education.
Meanwhile, one-to-one support for an SEN child costs the council on average £20,000 a year, said experts.
The Independent has approached Baker Small for comment.
- More about:
- Special Educational Needs
- Legal Aid
- Department for Education