Lawyers need guidance on communicating with and supporting clients with a learning disability

According to research recently published, lawyers often struggle to provide the right support for people with a learning disability due to lack of experience or training.

The Norah Fry Research Centre carried out the research on behalf of MencapLegal Services Board, and the Legal Services Consumer Panel.

The research is based on numerous focus groups with 90 people with a learning disability and interviews with 26 family carers and 9 legal services professionals. Findings show that people with a learning disability are unclear about how legal services could help them, and instead rely on people close to them for support. Family carers mostly rely on the internet, learning disability charities and support groups for help, rather than seeking advice from a lawyer.

Common legal issues identified by the research include parents with learning disabilities fighting to keep care of their children.

Several positive effects of getting the right legal advice were identified in the research, including relief, improved quality of life and a sense of empowerment. The Legal Services Board is now calling for the legal sector to develop guidelines for all lawyers to help them better understand the support and communication needs of people with a learning disability.

Key issues outlined included lawyers not being understood, appearing uninterested or failing to signpost clients to the right specialist support.

The Legal Services Board has adopted a British Standard (BS18477) regarding vulnerable clients, and is asking other organisations in the sector to do the same. Mencap will develop easy to read materials on choosing legal services designed to support people with learning disabilities.

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.

Chris Kenny, Chief Executive of the Legal Services Board, said:

“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.”

The research can be read here.